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An ode to polyethylene

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2019

Svetlana V. Boriskina
Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA
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Polyethylene is one of the most produced materials in the world—is it a blessing or a curse? This article makes the case for the former by highlighting a range of emerging applications of polyethylene in energy and sustainability, including passive cooling of electronics and wearables, water treatment and harvesting, and even ocean cleanup from plastic waste debris.

Usually, when the word “polyethylene” is mentioned in the context of discussing sustainability issues, a good chance the message is that “the current level of environmental plastic pollution is unsustainable.” Polyethylene does indeed comprise a large volume of plastic waste, but only because it is used in so many different products, which eventually reach the end of their lifetime and end up on the landfills and in the ocean. There is, however, a good reason—actually, many good reasons—why polyethylene is one of the most produced materials in the world, and this review discusses various useful applications stemming from the unique material properties of polyethylene. Some of the emerging applications of polyethylene hold high promise for sustainable energy generation from renewable sources and for sustainable management of planetary energy and water resources. Light weight and corrosion resistance of polyethylene, combined with its unique infrared transparency and heat transfer properties, which can be engineered to span between the near-perfect insulation and metal-like conduction, are at the core of new technological applications of a not-so-old material.

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