A new class of industrial polymers discovered by researchers from IBM may revolutionize materials technology. The newly-discovered materials are exceptionally strong and light, and could find use in a wide variety of applications.
These new polymers could be used for microelectronics, or the construction of vehicles for transportation on the ground or in aerospace.
One of the most remarkable properties of one of these new materials is the ability to repair itself. When pieces are severed apart, and then placed in close proximity to each other, the segments begin to "self-heal," reforming molecular bonds within a matter of seconds. This behavior is driven by the bonding of hydrogen atoms between the molecules.
This "self-healing" behavior is reversible, using ordinary water. This means the newly-discovered material could be used for permanent adhesives, or in medicines, when temporary adhesion is desired.
IBM researchers used computational chemistry to predict how new polymers could be designed with predetermined physical characteristics. The newly-discovered polymers discovered by the chemists included materials highly-resistant to solvents, as well as to physical stresses.
This is the first new family of polymers discovered in 20 years. The first of these new materials were discovered by accident. Jeannette "Jamie" Garcia is a 31-year-old chemist at a laboratory managed by IBM. She was running an experiment, combining three chemicals in a beaker. The chemist forgot to add one of the ingredients to the mixture, before leaving the beaker alone. Soon, the compound formed a hard, white block that had to be broken out of the glass beaker. It wasn't long before the team, headed by chemistry pioneer James Hedrick, started to test the physical properties of the new compound.
The new polymers can also easily be "disassembled" through the use of acids, to easily recycle into new material. Recycling used products created from these materials could be fast, cheap, and environmentally-friendly. Defective electronic parts could be quickly re-formed into the correct form.
"Also, these materials can be transformed into new polymer structures to further bolster their strength by 50 percent - making them ultra strong and lightweight. This could impact almost every industry looking to innovate across engineering, product design and spur new technologies," IBM researchers wrote on their Web site, announcing the discovery.
Polymers are found nearly everywhere in society, from polyester in clothing, to fast-food containers and polymide, which makes up a good portion of the bodies of aircraft and automobiles.
Discovery of the new family of polymers was detailed in the journal Science.