IBM scientists discover self-healing, recyclable polymers

A new class of thermosetting polymer has been discovered that is lightweight, stronger than bone, 100% recyclable and able to self-heal.

Created by IBM scientists using a combination of lab experiments and computer modelling, the new plastics have properties that could potentially have a huge impact in fields such as aerospace and microelectronics.

"Although there has been significant work in high performance materials, today's engineered polymers still lack several fundamental attributes," said materials scientist James Hedrick. "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."

The polymers created by the IBM team consist of two different classes of common plastic materials, paraformaldehyde and 4,4'-oxydianiline (ODA), in what's called a condensation reaction.

When heated to 250°C the material becomes incredibly strong due to a rearrangement of covalent bonds and loss of the solvent that is trapped in the polymer, but as a consequence is more brittle (similar to how glass shatters).

Another version of the plastic forms an elastic gel because it's formed at low temperatures and traps the solvent in its molecular network, making it stretchy and self-healing. This, according to IBM, could make it useful as an adhesive, or as a way of making other polymers self-healing.

Both polymers remain intact when exposed to water (although they do decompose if the water is very acidic), which means they can be re-used for other polymers.

They can also be manufactured to have even higher strength if carbon nanotubes or other reinforcing fillers are mixed into the polymer and are heated to high temperatures. This process enables the polymers to have properties similar to metals, opening up the possibility for their use in the automotive and aerospace sectors.

Laura Hopperton

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Do you have any comments about this article?
First of all, I congratulate to team of IBM for that innovation. I have a question on this, what about its recyclability.

Comment Ethayakkannan, 21/05/2014

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