Supercomputing for Super-Plastics

By Tiffany Trader

May 15, 2014

IBM scientists have invented a new class of experimental polymers that are exceptionally lightweight, remarkably strong, and even self-healing, which they say could transform manufacturing and fabrication in the transportation, aerospace, and microelectronics industries.

IBM’s research division published their findings on the novel polymers in the journal Science on Thursday with collaborators UC Berkeley, Eindhoven University of Technology and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Saudi Arabia.

The discovery was based upon a ‘computational chemistry’ hybrid approach that combines lab experimentation and synthetic polymer chemistry with advanced supercomputing. IBM reports that the new materials are the first to demonstrate resistance to cracking, strength higher than bone, as well as being self-healing and completely recyclable.

Polymers – long chains of molecules that are connected through chemical bonds – are everywhere. From clothing to drink bottles, paints, food packaging and many building materials, polymers are a critical component in most modern technologies. Yet as crucial as these substances are, today’s polymers are lacking in some key ways. Such shortcomings include poor crack resistance, insufficient thermal resistance, and lack of recyclability.

By addressing these limitations, IBM’s new polymer class could be poised for transformative uses in a wide array of fields. The polymers are also tunable, which means that specific attributes can be emphasized by how much heat is used in the curing process and through the addition of filler materials. Using high heat in tandem with reinforcing fillers, IBM researchers were able to create super-strong polymers that they nicknamed “Titan.” Such materials behave a lot like metal, but are more lightweight, making them good candidates for use in airplane and cars.

Another process uses low heat curing to form elastic gels that are strong yet flexible like a rubber band. Called “Hydro” by IBM insiders, this type of polymer is “self healing” as a result of the hydrogen-bonding interactions in the hemiaminal polymer network.

“Probably the most unexpected and remarkable characteristic of these gels,” states IBM, “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.”

Potential applications would be ones that require reversible assemblies, such as drug cargo delivery. The ability to selectively recycle a component would also be a boon to the semiconductor industry where defective parts could be reused as a base material, helping to converse expensive resources.

According to reporting from The New York Times, this discovery was several decades in the making. The IBM scientists say that that’s how long it’s been since a distinctly new polymer class was invented. And apparently, it all started with an error. IBM laboratory research chemist Jeannette M. Garcia was cooking up a recipe for a recyclable plastic and inadvertently omitted one of the steps. She later returned to find a hard white plastic that was impervious to grinding and hammering.

Using computer modeling on powerful supercomputers, the researchers discovered a new polymer family with two primary types, one “soft and gooey” and the other very rigid, dubbed “Hydro” and “Titan.”

“New materials innovation is critical to addressing major global challenges, developing new products and emerging disruptive technologies,” said James Hedrick, Advanced Organic Materials Scientist, IBM Research. “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. This is unique to IBM and allows us to address the complex needs of advanced materials for applications in transportation, microelectronic or advanced manufacturing.”

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