Strong, durable materials are hard to recycle — they're designed to stand up to abuse. But research chemists at an IBM laboratory just published their discovery of a never-before-seen family of polymers that's super strong, self-healing, lightweight, and easy to recycle. And it was discovered completely by accident.
Dr Jeannette Garcia was mixing up a standard recipe for a plastic polymer at an IBM lab when she inadvertently left out an ingredient. When she returned to the beaker later, the liquid mix had turned into a white plastic so strong, it couldn't be removed with a grinder. Dr Garcia had to smash the beaker with a hammer to get the polymer out.
IBM says Dr Garcia's plastic is the first distinctly new type of polymer created in decades — most of the new polymers created in recent years are simply variations on materials synthesized many years ago. The new family, code-named "Titan", is a type of thermoset polymer, formed under heat to create a 3D network of bonds that's as rigid as bone.
Unlike other types of thermoset polymers, however, IBM's accidental discovery is utterly recyclable, a huge and unexpected benefit in a class of materials built to be ultra-tough. "Thermosets are designed to be exceptionally stable in terms of temperature and mechanical properties; they are not designed to be reversible," said Dr Timothy Long, a chemistry professor at Virginia Tech. "To think about materials that have all of these properties, and which are also recyclable, is an advance."
There's still plenty of research to be done, and you won't see Titan-based polymers in consumer products any time soon. But this accidental discovery shows that it's possible to create strong, self-healing materials that are durable when needed, but can be broken down and recycled when the job is done. You just have to make some mistakes along the way. [Science via New York Times]
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