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IBM discovers first new class of polymers in decades

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May 15, 2014

A Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) image of the new ultra-strong polymer reinforced with...

A Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) image of the new ultra-strong polymer reinforced with carbon nanotubes (Image: IBM)

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The chemical tree got a bit of a shake this week with scientists at IBM announcing the discovery of the first new class of polymer materials in decades. Discovered using a combination of lab experiments and computer modelling, the new plastics have properties that could potentially have a huge impact in manufacturing, transportation, aerospace, and micro electronics.

Since the first synthetic plastics were invented in the 19th century, the use of polymers has spread from artificial billiard balls to become one of the key materials of the 21st century. They’re used so widely in modern life that this could almost be called a plastic age, though the names are rarely familiar with such non-household labels as polyesters, polyacrylates, polyethylene, polyolefins, polystyrene, epoxies, polyamides, and polyimides.

Despite this ubiquity, plastics aren't all that they should be. While they have a reputation for indestructibility, they’re actually very sensitive to the environment. Ultraviolet light, oxygen, heat, alcohols, and solvents can all destroy plastics in short order. Try using a polystyrene cup to measure out petrol and you’ll get a dramatic demonstration of this. They’re also very difficult to recycle because once they've been cured they can’t be remolded, and over time some can exude toxic chemicals if left in a landfill.

Up until now, polymer chemistry was regarded as a mature field where all the big discoveries have been made and it's now just a matter of filling in the details. It’s been decades since the last family of polymers was discovered, and most plastics research today involves combining, tweaking, and generally learning how to work plastics. It’s a bit like making advances in woodworking without discovering new species of trees. Now IBM have discovered the first new family of trees ... or rather, polymers in decades

We call chemistry a science, but in many ways it's an art that relies on the experience and intuition of the chemist. Computational chemistry combines the empirical work in the synthetic polymer chemistry lab with the modelling power of the computer to predict chemical reactions. It doesn't replace experiments, but it does cut out a lot of the trial and error. And it’s through computational chemistry that the new polymers were discovered.

The IBM polymers consist of two related classes of plastic materials. They’re formed by combining paraformaldehyde and 4,4ʹ-oxydianiline in what’s called a condensation reaction. When heated to 250⁰ C (482⁰ F) the material becomes very strong as covalent bonds form and the solvent is forced out, forming the first of two versions of the polymer. Both versions are highly elastic, resistant to solvents, and are recyclable. One version can even self-heal.

Infographic explaining the new polymer discovered by IBM (Image: IBM)

These polymers also show new physical properties. The first version is lightweight, stiff, resistant to cracking, shows more strength than bone, and can also turned into new polymer structures with half again as much strength. However, it is very brittle, like glass. When mixed with carbon nanofibers and heated, it forms an extremely strong, lightweight composite material that is similar to metal, yet has a degree of self-healing when cracked.

Another version of the plastic forms an elastic gel because it’s formed at low temperature and traps the solvent in its molecular network. This gel is not only very stretchy, but It’s “self-healing” because if you cut a bit in two, they bond back together again in seconds when they touch. According to IBM, this property makes the gel polymer useful as an adhesive, a way of making other polymers self-healing, or as a method for transporting dyes or medicines.

Both versions are also recyclable. Water doesn't affect the polymer, but when the water is acidic, the polymer melts and can be recovered and reformed into new products. This property means that the plastic can be selectively removed without affecting surrounding materials, which has great potential for the semiconductor industry, manufacturing, and advanced composites.

“Although there has been significant work in high-performance materials, today’s engineered polymers still lack several fundamental attributes," says James Hedrick, Advanced Organic Materials Scientist, IBM Research. "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.”

The IBM team’s research was published in Science.

The video below shows the new polymer in a lab setting.

Source: IBM

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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9 Comments

That is fascinating. Is it though, remarkbly "poisonous"?

promet
15th May, 2014 @ 09:25 pm PDT

What a mind-blowing discovery!

Joel Detrow
15th May, 2014 @ 11:29 pm PDT

"They’re also very difficult to recycle because once they've been cured they can’t be remolded".

Not quite true! There is a distinction between thermosetting plastics (e.g. bakelite) which set by chemical reaction and can't be remelted and the more common thermoplastics which can be remelted and remoulded (e.g Polyethylene, Polypropylene) - hence the massive world-wide recycling industry for these materials!

Sheldon Cooper
16th May, 2014 @ 03:25 am PDT

I imagine this will be a big deal for 3D-Printing.

Jana A. Murray
16th May, 2014 @ 09:18 am PDT

If it 'melts ' when it comes into contract with acids (e.g. Coca Cola) then presumably there will be quite severe limitations on where it can safely be used. Even human perspiration is mildly acidic - so if used for chairs perhaps it would reform to the exact shape of your rear! [unlikely to replace polypropylene then]

Or does it require a stronger acid to 'melt it?

Interesting and worthwhile discovery though, nonetheless.

Alien
16th May, 2014 @ 09:18 am PDT

Ahoy, and warm Aloha, This new Discoveries and Application with these potential breakthru polymers, along with New Bounding agents can make the marine industry that much more smoothly operational also, like new form and design with sails, kites, winghs and foils; or even the composite construction of hulls,masts, and rigging- Sail/Foil/Glide Faster-than-the-Wind.

I like so very much the most-probable properties of the products of the future being able to have "self-healing" attributes; while also the Recycling principals are just what we are in need for making that small human carbon emissions print- Perhaps a "new" molecule, or cell bank can be introduced to inter-marriage with our man-made plastic-disposal-heaps/Oceanic and Seas Gyres, we can then send ouut internationale navies with harvesting designed ships to collect the Re-purposing/Recycling to most readily establish a strong foundation with our Communities-at-Large, on a Global Scale to take-care, and Malama our Home we call "Our Blue Canoe"- this break-down attributes of this New Polymer discovery could very well level the playing field and give Our Home eaarth an opportunity to Heal Herself- only if We, the Human species will pay attention, and Be Accountable, by ceasing and desist with out all-encompassing Emissions Failing Systems, and looking for the magic-bullet sydrome for "instant-gratification!?!

I-do believe that with the correct, dialed-in Attitude and Aptitude applied with these New Polymers that future can look very bright and more pristine for that child that is yet to be born.

Harmonix333
16th May, 2014 @ 10:21 am PDT

"Try using a polystyrene cup to measure out petrol and you’ll get a dramatic demonstration of this."

Yeah good one gizmag, tell your readers to make napalm.

Jamie Ian Macgregor
18th May, 2014 @ 06:41 pm PDT

"it’s “self-healing” because if you cut a bit in two, they bond back together again in seconds when they touch. "

That would be nasty. You can't have several different thing made from this polymer from touching each other. You would end up with a huge lump !

pmshah
18th May, 2014 @ 09:38 pm PDT

This is what the world was waiting for the industrial polymers. Now with the new experimental polymers will we see a big change in terms of price difference they will be cheaper, in term of weight they will be lighter and they will be also stronger which is ideal for manufacturing, transportation, aerospace and microelectronic, they also integrated the new computational modeling to cut or eliminate the amount of errors. To sum up the total Quality is being showcased.

Stael Dumesle
27th June, 2014 @ 02:59 pm PDT
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