Scientists from IBM Research have discovered “a new class of polymer materials” — plastic composites, regularly used in smartphones and laptops and cars and planes — that could potentially transform almost every electronic device you use every day. The new plastics are entirely recyclable, can self-heal, and are incredibly strong and light.
IBM Research staff member Jeanette Garcia told Popular Mechanics that the discovery was made almost by accident. While working to recreate a different polymer, she found that a gel had unexpectedly hardened — although she didn’t know why at the time. With the help of the processing power of IBM’s supercomputer arrays, the scientists back-tracked and the discovery was made.
Polyhexahydrotriazine, or PHT, is novel because as well as being the first new class of polymers to be discovered in a full 20 years — a hell of a long time in technology and in chemistry — it’s also one of the most easily recyclable. It can be chemically degraded or melted (its melting point is slightly lower than other plastics, too), and it’s also that versatility that lets PHT plastic heal itself — so no more unsightly scratches on your laptop or car dashboard.
The announcement means that in a few years, when (and if) the industry more widely adopts the technology, you’ll start to see phones and notebooks that are properly recyclable, rather than just being smashed and melted to retrieve the precious metals inside, as well as being stronger, lighter, and more resistant to damage. [IBM Research]