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IBM Invents Self-Healing Super Plastic for Planes, Chips ... And T-1000s?

Big Blue researchers create polymers that are stronger than bone, ultralight and recyclable.

Courtesy: IBM Research

IBM scientists have discovered a new class of materials that are ultralight, stronger than bone and self-healing, a combination of attributes with promising applications for aerospace, semiconductors and the Terminator franchise.

Big Blue’s research division in San Jose, Calif., published their findings on the novel polymers in the journal Science on Thursday.

Polymers are long chains of molecules commonly used to create synthetic plastics. They’re found in everyday items such as soda bottles, paints and smartphones, but conventional ones crack under certain conditions and fail to break down in landfills.

IBM said the new materials resist fractures, reform to their original shape and are 100 percent recyclable. For the semiconductor industry, that may mean defective chips can be reworked rather than discarded, saving money and reducing waste, the company said.

If you’d like deeper technical details, the prestigious peer-reviewed journal certainly has them:

We report a simple one-pot, low-temperature polycondensation between paraformaldehyde and 4,4ʹ-oxydianiline (ODA) that forms hemiaminal dynamic covalent networks (HDCNs), which can further cyclize at high temperatures, producing poly(hexahydrotriazine)s (PHTs). Both materials are strong thermosetting polymers, and the PHTs exhibited very high Young’s moduli (up to ~14.0 gigapascals and up to 20 gigapascals when reinforced with surface-treated carbon nanotubes), excellent solvent resistance, and resistance to environmental stress cracking.

Like they said … “simple.”

The class of polymers are “tunable,” meaning particular attributes can be emphasized depending, mainly, on the temperature at which they’re cured. One process creates super-strong polymers — internally nicknamed “Titan.” Another forms gels around solvents within the materials, producing an elastic structure dubbed “Hydro” that “stretches like a rubber band.”

But wait, there’s more.

“The most unexpected and remarkable characteristic of these gels is that if they are severed and the pieces are placed back in proximity so they physically touch, the chemical bonds are reformed between the pieces making it a single unit again within seconds,” IBM explained in its press release.

The strong, light, durable version could be used for things like car panels and airplane wings. The self-healing version could be applied to anything from slow-release fragrances to drug-delivery mechanisms to …

The researchers developed the materials through a combination of supercomputing and advanced chemistry, a hybrid approach unimaginatively dubbed “computational chemistry.” They accelerated the discovery process by using software to model the behavior of materials based on what’s known about how chemicals bond and react.

“This is unique to IBM and allows us to address the complex needs of advanced materials for applications in transportation, microelectronics or advanced manufacturing,” said James Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist with IBM Research, in a statement.

Of course, IBM’s researchers are hardly the only ones working toward new “miracle materials.”

LG released the G Flex last year built from materials with some “self-healing” capabilities.

Last month, scientists at the University of Illinois announced they’d developed a “regenerating” plastic that could potentially be used to self-repair dented car bumpers or, say, cracked smartphone screens.

(I’ll be needing both, please.)

Meanwhile, scientists around the globe are busy exploring the long list of possible applications for graphene, a thin, strong, pliable material that promises longer-lasting batteries, flexible displays and more.

“New materials innovation is critical to addressing major global challenges, developing new products and emerging disruptive technologies,” Hedrick said.

To learn more about the regenerating plastic being developed at the University of Illinois, check out the video below:

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