Recyclable Industrial Polymer
May 17, 2014

IBM Researchers Accidentally Discover Tough, Recyclable Industrial Polymer

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A laboratory mistake has led to the discovery of a new class of self-healing and super strong industrial polymer that could lead to automobiles, plans and electronics that are less expensive and more environmentally friendly, according to research appearing Friday in the journal Science.

Scientists at the IBM Research lab in Almaden, California found that by combining high performance computing and synthetic polymer chemistry, they could create new materials that were stronger than bone, resistant to cracks and capable of returning to their original shape. The materials could be transformed into polymer structures to make them 50 percent stronger and more lightweight – all while being recyclable, the company announced on Thursday.

Surprisingly, the material was accidentally discovered by Dr. Jeanette Garcia, who came across the recyclable and durable thermoset plastic material when she accidentally omitted one of three compounds out of a reaction. As she told BBC News, “I had this chunk of plastic, and I had to figure out what it was. I had to smash my round-bottomed flask with a hammer.”

As it turns out, the chunk of plastic was exceptionally hard and stable, and reverted to its original components when placed in acid, allowing its chemical building blocks to be reused. No previous thermosets were recyclable, leading Dr. Garcia to call the discovery “fortuitous… the first thing I did, of course, was to hit the literature, to try and see if it'd been done before. I just assumed that it had been – it's such a simple reaction.”

However, there was no record of this type of thermoset – meaning that the IBM researcher had, for the first time in decades, discovered a new polymer that wasn’t just a variation on materials that had been previously synthesized, according to Gizmodo’s Robert Sorokanich. Unfortunately, additional research needs to be done on this new family of polymers, which has been co-named the Titan family, so it is unlikely they will be used commercially any time soon.

“Although there has been significant work in high-performance materials, today’s engineered polymers still lack several fundamental attributes,” James Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist with IBM research, said in a statement. “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,” he added. “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 material is not without its potential faults, however: Joshua A. Krisch of Popular Mechanics points out that there are issues with the thermoset’s level of heat resistance. While the polymer behaves as expected at temperatures of up to 350 degrees Celsius, anything above that causes it to start decomposing.

Most thermosets are actually exposed to extremely hot environments, such as in the redistribution layer of a computer chip that can reach temperatures of up to 425 degrees Celsius. For these types of applications, the IBM Research team told Krisch that a more heat-resistant thermoset or a blend of polymers would be required.