Proceedings of the
Second International Energy 2030 Conference,
November 4-5, 2008, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.
Opportunities and Perspectives for Plastics in Coming Fossil Fuel and Solar Energy Scenarios
Prof. Reinhold W. Lang
Institute of Materials Science and Testing of Plastics, University of Leoben
Polymer Competence Center Leoben GmbH, Austria
The worldwide production of polymeric materials (i.e., “plastics”) in 2004 amounted to 224 million
tons (corresponding to roughly to 224 million m3), compared to raw-steel with 1,060 tons (corresponding
to roughly to 133 million m3). In fact, in terms of volume (i.e., that is what is visibly perceptible) plastics
have been outperforming steel since the late-1980s by a factor that now has reached 1.7 (!). Moreover,
compared to other material classes such as metals and ceramics, plastics also exhibit by far the highest
growth rates over the last decades, a trend which will continue in the foreseeable future . The bright
outlook for the polymer industry as a whole, however, is not only related to sheer volume growth of
existing plastics products but also reflects the still enormous innovation potential of polymeric materials
and polymer related technologies that is unmatched by other more traditional material technologies.
Among the challenges and opportunities ahead for the plastics industry, increasing attention is paid to
environmental matters. In addition to production and process related environmental protection measures,
many of the environmental activities in the past have concentrated on issues related to plastics waste.
However, a much wider perspective integrating economic, ecological, social and not least also
technological aspects is now emerging and termed “Sustainable Development,” and many efforts of the
plastics industry are directed towards a positive contribution. A continuous shift towards Sustainable
Development will not only significantly affect the polymer industry but also technology development in
general and thus the industry and society as a whole.
In this regard it is well acknowledged that the energy sector is a key sector in any sustainable
development scenario for the following main reasons among others. First, on the resource side it is the
limited availability of fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas) so that at some point in time the gap between
the worldwide energy supply based on fossil fuels and the worldwide energy demand may widen. Second,
on the post-use side and as a consequence of the utilization of fossil fuel energy it is the substantial
increase in greenhouse gas concentrations (particularly CO2) in the earth atmosphere that increasingly
threatens the earth climate and thus living conditions.
While the transformation of the current fossil fuel based energy system to an energy system
substantially to fully-based on renewable resources in the mid- and long-term is at the core of a “true”
sustainable energy scenario, there are many open issues and problems to be resolved also technologically
over the next decades to support such a transformation process. In the presentation various options and the
role of polymeric materials in contributing to such a transformation of the energy system will be explored,
providing numerous examples on the innovative use of plastics in this context.