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Polymeric Materials in the Health Sector: an Expanding Reality

16 July 2021
Article by João Silva, project manager, Marta Martins and Susana Sousa, INEGI researchers in the field of composite materials and structures.

High design flexibility and excellent mechanical, physical and durability properties are some of the characteristics that have driven the use of advanced polymeric materials in the healthcare sector1,2,3.

In recent years they have been replacing traditional materials, such as stainless steel, titanium and magnesium alloys, and the global market associated with medical polymeric materials is estimated to reach 46 billion euros in 2027. Between 2020 and 2027, the Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) is expected to reach 7.1%.

In this expanding market, advanced composites are a prominent segment. They are a type of materials with polymeric matrices, reinforced with fibers or additives, with an expected growth of 9% CAGR, between 2020 and 2030, which points to a market value of more than 420 million euros by the end of 2030, world wide 4,5.

Applications are varied and bring advantages from cost to production

Polymers, or plastics as they are commonly called, can be natural, such as rubber, starch, cellulose, lipids and proteins, present in animal and/or vegetable organisms; or synthetics such as polyethylene, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), teflon, etc.

In the 50's, this industry was broadly massified, enabling the production, whether of natural or synthetic origin, of simple medical consumables such as bottles, syringes or tubes, with high production rates and lower costs. This led to an increase in the perception of the value of these materials, fostering continuous development, which has since resulted in new applications in the healthcare sector.

Artificial limbs, implants, surgical instruments, diagnostic imaging or protection equipment are examples4, 5 of products currently manufactured with polymeric materials. In general, they present great advantages such as high availability, recyclability, good quality and sterilization capacity, significantly contributing to the health of the population worldwide 3, 5.

At the same time, production technologies associated with advanced polymers, such as 3D printing, have also evolved, allowing for the development of customized solutions at affordable costs and ensuring greater comfort.

Taking a closer look at some of these products, it is noted that their requirements do, in fact, have characteristics compatible with what polymers can provide.

Prostheses and orthotics, for example, must be light, have high rigidity, durability under impact, resistance to traction and compression, in addition to being economically viable and easy to put on or take off. It is common for amputee athletes to use devices of this type made with Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers (CFRP), which ensure faster mobility. However, carbon fiber has a high cost, which may not be viable for most users of CFRP prostheses or orthotics, thus emerging natural fibers, such as hemp, as potential options for the production of orthotic and prosthetic devices more economical6,7,8.

In the case of diagnostic imaging equipment involving x-ray systems, CFRPs are also increasingly used, due to the fact that they have almost zero radiolucency. Although it doesn't block x-rays, this feature reduces radiation exposure, enhancing exams with greater speed, resolution and more accurate results. There are other composite materials, based on carbon and beyond, that have already managed to show a high capacity to protect against X-ray radiation. They are being explored for applications in personal protective equipment, as they are light, non-toxic and effective9,10,11.

The need for comfort, maneuverability and transportability means that composite materials are also used in the production of wheelchairs. Its lightness and strength ensure the versatility and autonomy required in the daily use of these devices, without the need for help from other people12,13,14.

Innovation & Development contribute to sustainability

At INEGI, several R&D projects have been carried out ifor the development of advanced polymer-based materials for the health sector, most of which are also focused on the application of circular economy logics.

It is essential to ensure the health and well-being of the planet, as well as people. Developing new materials and equipment that can be sterilized, reused or recycled, with a view to increasing the life cycle of these products is essential to ensure a healthier and more sustainable future.

Article originally published in the 2021/1 edition of Revista Interplast.


1  Li, C. S., Vannabouathong, C., Sprague, S., & Bhandari, M. (2015). The use of carbon-fiber-reinforced (CFR) PEEK material in orthopedic implants: a systematic review. Clinical Medicine Insights: Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders, 8, CMAMD-S20354.

2  Nambiar, S., & Yeow, J. T. (2012). Polymer-composite materials for radiation protection. ACS applied materials & interfaces, 4(11), 5717-5726.

3  Modjarrad, K., & Ebnesajjad, S. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of polymer applications in medicine and medical devices. Elsevier.



6  Shahar, F. S., Sultan, M. T. H., Lee, S. H., Jawaid, M., Shah, A. U. M., Safri, S. N. A., & Sivasankaran, P. N. (2019). A review on the orthotics and prosthetics and the potential of kenaf composites as alternative materials for ankle-foot orthosis. Journal of the mechanical behavior of biomedical materials, 99, 169-185.

7  Chen, R. K., Jin, Y. A., Wensman, J., & Shih, A. (2016). Additive manufacturing of custom orthoses and prostheses—a review. Additive Manufacturing, 12, 77-89.

8  Ali, M. H., Smagulov, Z., & Otepbergenov, T. (2021). Finite element analysis of the CFRP-based 3D printed ankle-foot orthosis. Procedia Computer Science, 179, 55-62.


10 Hashemi, S. A., Mousavi, S. M., Faghihi, R., Arjmand, M., Sina, S., & Amani, A. M. (2018). Lead oxide-decorated graphene oxide/epoxy composite towards X-Ray radiation shielding. Radiation Physics and Chemistry, 146, 77-85.

11  Elbary, A. A., & Tammam, M. T. (2019). Physical and mechanical properties of polyamide 6/polystyrene (PA6/PS) reinforced by PbO2 composites for X-ray shielding. Journal of Thermoplastic Composite Materials, 0892705719872524.


13  Ehrig, T., Koschichow, R., Dannemann, M., Modler, N., & Filippatos, A. (2018, June). Design and development of an active wheelchair with improved lifting kinematics using CFRP-compliant elements. In ECCM18–18th European Conference on Composite Materials, Athens, Greece (pp. 24-28).

14  Gebrosky, B., Grindle, G., Cooper, R., & Cooper, R. (2020). Comparison of carbon fibre and aluminium materials in the construction of ultralight wheelchairs. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 15(4), 432-441.

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