Recyclable materials discovered by accident at IBM laboratory

May 20, 2014 0 By Amanda Giasson
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IBM research chemist stumbles upon new polymer materials.

After making a mistake with a formula by accidentally omitting one of its three components, Dr. Jeannette M. Garcia, a research chemist at an IBM lab, found that what resulted from her error was a hard white plastic that turned out to be new recyclable materials.

The two newly discovered types of synthetic polymers are strong, flexible and self-healing.

Dr. Garcia commented that the polymers, called PHT, are extremely strong. “It’s stronger than materials that are already used in airplane wings, bone, and fiberboard,” she said. Dr. Garcia also went on to say that when reinforced with carbon nanotubes, the strength of the polymers is enhanced by an additional 50%. “We are getting closer to materials that are like metal, but they’re much more lightweight,” she added.

After further testing the polymers, the team of researchers also found another type of material in the form of an elastic gel. It is not unlike a rubber band, however, it contains roughly 75% liquid. If you place the material in water it will return to its initial form. What this means is that not only is the material incredibly strong, it is also recyclable. If it were to be sliced in half and then placed back together, it will “self-heal”, reconnecting as a single unit.

Dr. Garcia said, “You could possibly use [these materials] as adhesives, putting two things together that form a new bond.”

The industrial polymers could be used as stronger recyclable materials in manufacturing industries.

Currently, polymer materials can be found in many common products that are used in the average person’s daily life, such as drink bottles, clothing, paints, secure food packages, plastic milk bottles, etc. That being said, these polymers are not as strong as the new variety recently discovered by researchers at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. They can crack under stress and they are difficult to recycle. This is why most of them often end up in landfills as toxic waste.

The new synthetic polymers are the first family of materials in the world to be solvent-resistant, tougher than bone, can self heal and be entirely recyclable all the way back to their initial material. Due to these recyclable materials being stronger, lighter and less expensive, they may be highly beneficial to the automotive, airline, aerospace and semiconductors industries, among other manufacturing businesses.