Researchers at IBM have discovered a new class of polymers which may radically transform manufacturing and fabrication.
The new wonder polymers feature the ability to reform to their original shape (self-heal), all while demonstrating a resistance to cracking and a strength that is higher than bone. When transformed into new polymer structures, they also increase their strength by 50%, which may lead to cheaper, stronger, and lighter recyclable materials.
While current polymers are used in everything from drink bottles (polyesters) to paints (polyacrylics), they have a number of limitations that make them ill suited for use in a number of applications. For example, polymers used in aerospace design are exposed to a number of environmental factors (de-icing of planes, fuel, etc.) and actually begin to crack when exposed to these things. Probably not the best thing when designing an airplane.
In addition, traditional polymers are difficult to recycle because they can’t be remolded once cured, or even broken down thermally when heating them to high temperatures. This means they are discarded to landfills, and as a number of their ingredients are non-biodegradable (color additives, fillers, plasticizers), they can potentially affect the environment.
However, the new polymers discovered by IBM are able to heal themselves once a crack appears, and hold up well against a number of environmental factors. They can even be recycled, as the polymers have the ability to revert back to their initial form when exposed to the right conditions.
This durability would allow the polymers to be used in a number of transportation and aerospace applications, where their increased strength and decreased weight would allow for more efficient designs. The ability to recycle the material would also decrease the amount of waste created during manufacturing, as companies would be able to rework material that defectively manufacture parts instead of simply disposing of them.
Hopefully we’ll see this new material find its way into products soon, as the effects could revolutionize the manufacturing process. And with a strength supposedly higher than carbon nanotubes, this may just be our new wonder material.