When you leave a key ingredient out of a recipe, you usually come up with an inedible meal. When scientists do it, it sometimes leads to an amazing discovery. That's what happened at an IBM laboratory recently when research chemist Jeannette M. Garcia missed a step while mixing and heating a batch of chemicals. She ended up with a beaker filled with hard white plastic that was so tough she needed to break the glass to get to the material.
It turned out not be the mistake she first thought it was. The accident has led to the discovery of two amazing new polymers – the first new polymers created in 30 years. According to a paper published this week in the journal Science, the polymers — code-named "Titan" and "Hydro" — are incredibly strong, lightweight and able to heal themselves. Not only that, they're also completely recyclable back to their original components.
One of the authors behind the paper told VentureBeat that this is the kind of discovery that only "comes along once every few decades."
Polymers, such as plastics and polystyrene, are long chains of molecules connected through chemical bonds. The main failings of these materials are their poor recyclability and their propensity for cracking when they bend or are otherwise stressed. The new polymers solve these problems. IBM said the materials could even potentially be used in airplanes, where their strength, light weight, resistance to stress and self-healing abilities could allow them to be used on airplane wings.
Beyond the initial accident, the new polymers were developed through a combination of chemistry and high-performance computing, which allowed them to quickly figure out how the new polymers would react with other materials. For example, when they reinforced the polymer with carbon nanotubes, it became 50 percent stronger.
IBM Research's James Hedrick, who co-authored the new paper, said in a news release that "new materials innovation is critical to addressing major global challenges, developing new products and emerging disruptive technologies. We're now able to predict how molecules will respond to chemical reactions and build new polymer structures with significant guidance from computation that facilitates accelerated materials discovery. This is unique to IBM and allows us to address the complex needs of advanced materials for applications in transportation, microelectronic or advanced manufacturing."
In addition to the hard material that IBM says could be used for airplane wings, they also developed an elastic gel that is mostly liquid and would dissolve when placed in water. But if it is simply cut in half, it will reattach itself. The researchers say this could be used as a self-healing adhesive to repair defective semiconductor chips, for example. IBM says the dissolving qualities of the gel could also allow it to be used as a mechanism to delivery pharmaceuticals to the body.
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