Jeannette M. Garcia has worked as a research chemist at an IBM laboratory for years developing recyclable plastics that are stronger and better for the earth. On one of her days of mixing and heating chemicals, she left one step out of a three-step process and returned to find a hard white plastic substance in her beaker that had frozen the stirrer in place.
Her mistake led to the discovery of a new family of materials that display a number of attractive properties. The materials are unusually strong and light, exhibit “self-healing” properties and can be easily recycled and reformed. A research team at IBM’s Almaden Research Laboratory in San Jose, Calif reported the findings in the journal Science.
According to the scientists at IBM, this is the first distinctly new family of polymers that has been discovered in several decades. In recent years, several new polymer materials have been created but most of them are variants of existing synthetic classes.
Polymer materials are used in a wide variety of applications, including the creation of paints, contact lenses, garments and batteries. James L. Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist at IBM in San Jose, said, “They are just pervasively used materials. This is the polymer age.”
Because they are formed using a heating process, the new materials are known as thermosets. Their three-dimensional network of chemical bonds increases their strength and the polymers have the rigidity of bones. They have been shown to perform better under high temperatures than other types of polymers.
The two new types of synthetic polymers that have been discovered could have an impact on consumer products, industrial packaging, and transportation. While the new families of polymers have not yet been named, the scientists refer to them by the code names “Titan” and “Hydro.” The scientists said they had already begun working with several universities on composite applications, but the materials are not yet ready for commercial use.