Polymers have marked their territory in almost every aspect of modern life. Polymers range from common synthetic plastics such as polystyrene to natural biopolymers such as DNA and proteins that are fundamental to biological function and structure. Both natural and synthetic polymers are created using polymerization of many small molecules, known as monomers. Did you know that our body is also made up of many natural polymers like nucleic acids, proteins, etc.? In recent times, there has been a drastic increase in the demand for polymers produced naturally and green polymers in the market. In the U.S. alone, the sale of natural polymers is expected to exceed $5 billion by 2020. Generally speaking, green and natural are two peas in a pod, but it is not the case for polymers. Natural polymers (or biopolymers) are polymers that occur naturally or are produced by living organisms (such as cellulose, silk, chitin, protein, DNA). So, what are green polymers then? Green polymers, on are those produced using green (or sustainable) chemistry, a term that was coined in the 1990s. Green chemistry deals with the design of chemical products and processes that eliminate or decrease the use or generation of substances that are hazardous to humans, animals, plants, and the environment.
Natural polymers Vs. synthetic polymers
As the name suggests, natural polymers are polymer compounds that can be found naturally in our environment. On the other hand, synthetic polymers are polymer compounds that are produced artificially by humans. The key differentiator between natural polymers and synthetic polymers is that the former occurs naturally whereas the latter does not. Secondly, natural polymers are produced through biological processes, whereas synthetic polymers were produced from chemical processes. A unique feature of polymers produced naturally is that they are easily degradable by biological processes, but this is difficult in the case of synthetic polymers.
Why is the use of natural polymers likely to go high?
Fluctuating oil supply
From the economic perspective, the dwindling oil supply is an essential factor in boosting the oil price, especially given the expected surge in worldwide energy demand. This could drastically impact the competitiveness and cost-effectiveness of plastics. Shifting chemical raw material production to renewable resources or coal could safeguard plastics production against this expected new future oil crisis.
Growing environmental concerns
The growing tension around global warming is resulting in a surging demand for sustainable and ‘green’ products. Also, a tsunami of environmental legislation and regulations is propelling the development of environmentally friendly products with a low carbon footprint.
What are the advantages of using natural polymers?
- Natural polymers are readily and abundantly available
- They are comparatively inexpensive
- Products of natural polymers are non-toxic
- They can be modified to get semi-synthetic forms