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Molding the Future

Meet three innovators who are changing the world with plastic

In 1907, Belgian immigrant Leo Baekeland stumbled on a new material that would shape the 20th century. The chemist wanted a way to strengthen wood, and began tinkering. He discovered he could combine phenol, which came from burning coal, with formaldehyde. Then, when he combined this concoction with a filler like wood or asbestos, he could heat it and shape it into a mold. The result was the first synthetic thermosetting plastic, known as Bakelite. It was used to make telephones, radios and kitchen equipment. Baekeland called his invention “plastic.”

A century later, most plastics are produced when natural gas and oil are refined and combined with other compounds. Today, plastic is a component in nearly everything we see and touch, and is so common we hardly notice it. It is quietly enabling innovators young and old to solve everyday challenges, and leading to some of the most exciting innovations in sports, arts and technology.

Read on for a few examples of how plastic is making what was once impossible—possible.

Animal Orthotics:

Lending a Helping Paw

Derrick Campana, animal orthotist and founder of Animal Ortho Care, holding the leg of a sheep who received a custom cast.

Derrick Campana, 38, has been called Dr. Doolittle more than once. Campana, who founded Animal Ortho Care in Northern Virginia, works in the emerging field of animal orthotics. He is committed to helping handicapped dogs, cats, and even elephants walk again.

High-tech plastics have led to incredible advancements in human prosthetics over the last thirty years. But animals have only benefited recently with the help of inventors like Campana. Using lower-cost thermoplastics, Campana is able to help animals walk and run again, and change what veterinarians think is possible.

Campana, who had always been an animal lover, studied and trained in human orthotics and prosthetics. One day, a veterinarian came to the human clinic where Campana was working, and asked for a prosthetic for a dog. “I made the device and it was successful, and I just thought to myself, ‘wow there's probably a lot of animals that need these types of services,’” Campana said.

Ankle braces by Campana are often used to treat achilles tendon ruptures in animals.

He launched a business translating his knowledge from the human side to animals. But human prosthetics are very expensive and he realized he needed to find a way to make these products affordable. Fortunately, he discovered he was able to use lower cost thermoplastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene. “We have to keep these devices cost-effective for the owners, and high-temperature or low-temperature thermoplastics are very cost-effective and modifiable. You can heat form these to fit the dogs better and adjust them as needed.” He has now helped about 10,000 patients, like dogs who lost their paws in train accidents and elephants who were injured in land mine explosions.

Campana is currently making customized braces using his own proprietary blend of low-temperature plastic. He hopes this can help dogs with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.

“People don't realize that their dogs have an ACL, called the CCL in dogs, but they tear theirs very, very often. We can get the partial tears to heal without surgical intervention just by using the brace,”

Campana said.

He is encouraged to see more veterinarians embrace prosthetics. “It is more about acceptance,” Campana said. “When I first started, brace in the veterinarian community… was a bad word, but veterinarians are now accepting this as a part of their practice, and reshaping the veterinary field has always been my goal.”

Polyethylene:

The Evolution of Prosthetics & Orthotics

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Historically, human prosthetics were crude devices. They were often made from wood, steel and leather, and movement was frequently difficult for patients. However, war veterans returning from WWII pushed for improved options.

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Over time, advancements in materials and plastics allowed for more solutions for patients. The new prosthetics were lighter weight, more customizable and easier to clean.

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Breakthrough advances in human orthotics are now being translated and applied to animals. Lower cost materials, like polyethylene, now allow pet owners to afford orthotics and prosthetics that typically are not covered by insurance.

Hydrofoil Surfing:

Riding a Magic Carpet

Alex Aguera, owner of Go Foil, surfing on a hydrofoil board made from carbon fiber. Photo credit: Michael Petrikov

On the crystal blue waters of Maui, Alex Aguera, 56, a former professional windsurfer, is shaping a new sport. Hydrofoil surfing is the latest chapter in the evolution of water sports. Preceded by big wave surfing, windsurfing, kiteboarding and stand-up paddleboarding, hydrofoil surfing looks a little like riding a magic carpet. “It feels like you are flying or levitating,” Aguera said. “You are above the water, slicing right through everything, you don’t even feel the chop anymore.” The foils are about 2-by-2 feet and shaped like the rudder to a boat, and attached to the bottom of a small surfboard. The rider then pushes up onto the board, and floats above the water. In hydrofoil surfing, a rider typically wants the board to come out of the water slowly so he or she doesn’t fall off. “I created a foil that could get out of the water at a super slow speed,” Aguera said. “No one had ever done that before.”

Aguera began windsurfing as a teenager when his dad directed him away from motorcycles and towards the water. He has always made surfboards for himself and other pro surfers. “My first board was pretty much a big giant mess that I made in about 1979, when I was a kid in high school,” he said.

Several years ago, a friend taught him to make a hydrofoil, and soon after he started selling them. He recently founded his business, Go Foil, which is one of the leading companies in Hawaii making hydrofoils. Aguera uses an advanced form of resin-coated carbon fiber that comes as a fabric. He lays this fabric into a mold, sticks it in an autoclave, essentially a high-tech oven, to bake, and then the carbon fiber takes the form of the mold.

Several years ago, a friend taught him to make a hydrofoil, and soon after he started selling them. He recently founded his business, Go Foil, which is one of the leading companies in Hawaii making hydrofoils. Aguera uses an advanced form of resin-coated carbon fiber that comes as a fabric. He lays this fabric into a mold, sticks it in an autoclave, essentially a high-tech oven, to bake, and then the carbon fiber takes the form of the mold.

“The main advantage of carbon fiber is it is super light for how strong it is. Per pound, it is one of the strongest materials that we have on the planet. And our foils float. If you used aluminum you would not float,”

said Aguera.

Video producer: Brett Lickle

Carbon Fiber:

The Anatomy of a Hydrofoil

“The main advantage of carbon fiber is it is super light for how strong it is. Per pound, it is one of the strongest materials that we have on the planet,” Aguera says. “And our foils float. If you used aluminum you would not float.”

Carbon Fiber:

The Anatomy of a Hydrofoil

Surfboards were once made almost exclusively from foam and fiberglass. Now, carbon fiber is becoming a more popular material for board construction.

Construction can vary by board model but most contain a core layer made of foam covered with layers of carbon fiber. Finally an outer shell-like layer is often made of resin and fiberglass.

Carbon fiber is popular for hydrofoil board construction because it’s both strong and lightweight. The material is made from filaments of carbon that can be thinner than a strand of hair. It gets its strength when twisted together like yarn and can be woven together to form cloth.

VR Art:

Painting a New Reality

Northway, picture above, wears a VR headset and uses a controller to "paint" virtual art.

Sarah Northway, 38, a video-game designer turned digital artist from Vancouver, is at the forefront of a group of online creators using virtual reality software to make art. To work, Northway puts on one of the new VR headsets and plugs into a virtual canvas tethered to a computer.

The headset is made by heating and forming PC-ABS plastic with an injection mold. The result is a customized, hard, durable, break-resistant substance that allows art to come to life. Using Tilt Brush, the plastic controllers on her hands operate the paintbrushes, and the surrounding walls are blank. “It is just so whimsical,” Northway said. “A lot of the brushes are light-based, so you'll be in a dark room, and it's just like this illuminated beautiful light coming out of your hand and it feels like you're at a rave.”

Creators are making many different types of work, ranging from underwater documentaries to digital paintings. Artists like Northway create online galleries to show their work. Now, the art world is taking note. “It's entirely virtual,” Northway said. “So, everyone who comes to visit the gallery is just standing in their own living room in their own headset.”

Northway paints virtual spaces like the one above. The art is an interactive experience that people with VR headsets can enter, even from their own living rooms.

Viewers step inside the space, either by themselves or in multiplayer groups. “The base of the canvas is a campfire,” Northway said. “And because it's a multiplayer experience you can get a few people together and sit around the campfire and chat.”

Now Northway and her husband Colin are taking their show on the road. They are talking to local galleries and the San Francisco Museum of Art. Northway hopes they can eventually have a virtual gallery within a physical space. “We want to push the market so virtual reality is for everyone, not just for hardcore gamers,” Northway said. “We want it to be for anyone who wants to experience this new crazy medium and see what art will be in this new space.”

Northway paints virtual spaces like the one above. The art is an interactive experience that people with VR headsets can enter, even from their own living rooms.

PC-ABS:

Forming a VR Headset

PC-ABS is one of the most common forms of industrial thermoplastic. Manufacturers like it because it is strong, lightweight, heat-resistant and flexible. It typically appears as small pellets that are heated and then formed into whatever shape is desired. “The thermoplastics that VR headsets are made from are more like an ice cube; you can melt and reform them,” said Clinton P. Cowan, a plastics expert and president of CPC Plastics, Inc. “For VR headsets, these plastics are heated up and then injected into a mold under high pressure and they form the complex geometries of the mold.”

0/9

You got it!

Light-yet-strong carbon fiber is pretty much dominating the performance cycling world.

Exactly!

Lightweight, strong and translucent are properties that make polyethylene a good vessel for water and other beverages.

Nice job.

Polyethylene is a stretchable material that is great for keeping air and moisture out, while its translucence allows us to see in.

Correct.

The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it takes to fly. That explains why super-strong-yet-light carbon fiber is taking flight among aircraft makers.

That’s it.

The balance of heat-resistance and impact-resistance is why PC-ABS is a popular plastic for keyboards.

That's the answer.

You've heard of bullet-proof vests made from Kevlar, but those made with polyethylene can be 25% lighter and 40% stronger.

Yes!

Durability, flexibility and low cost are all qualities that make PC-ABS a material manufacturers like to call on for cell phone cases.

You're right.

With its high heat resistance and durability, PC-ABS is often used for chargers and adapters which supply or convert power.

That's right.

Stiff, light and strong carbon fiber is becoming a preferred material on the courts, replacing wood.

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