Scientists from IBM Research reported on May 16 that they have discovered a new class of polymer materials that can potentially transform manufacturing and fabrication in the fields of transportation, aerospace and microelectronics.
Through the unique approach of combining high performance computing with synthetic polymer chemistry, these new materials are the first to demonstrate resistance to cracking, strength higher than bone, the ability to reform to their original shape (self-heal), all while being completely recyclable back to their starting material.
Also, these materials can be transformed into new polymer structures to further bolster their strength by 50% - making them ultra strong and lightweight.
"Although there has been significant work in high-performance materials, today's engineered polymers still lack several fundamental attributes,” said James Hedrick, Advanced Organic Materials Scientist, IBM Research. “New materials innovation is critical to addressing major global challenges, developing new products and emerging disruptive technologies.
"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."
Polymers, a long chain of molecules that are connected through chemical bonds, are a core material in common items ranging from clothing and drink bottles (polyesters), paints (polyacrylics), plastic milk bottles (polyethylene), secure food packaging (polyolefins, polystyrene) to major parts of cars and planes (epoxies, polyamides and polyimides).
However, today's polymer materials are limited in some ways. In transportation and aerospace, structural components or composites are exposed to many environmental factors (de-icing of planes, exposure to fuels, cleaning products, etc.) and exhibit poor environmental stress crack resistance (i.e., catastrophic failure upon exposure to a solvent). Also, these polymers are difficult to recycle because they cannot be remolded or reworked once cured or thermally decomposed by heating to high temperatures. As a result, these end up in the landfill together with toxins such as plasticizers, fillers, and color additives which are not biodegradable.
IBM's discovery of a new family of materials with a range of tunable and desirable properties provides a new opportunity for exploratory research and applications development to academia, materials manufacturers and end users of high performance materials.
Two new related classes of materials have been discovered which possess a very distinctive range of properties that include high stiffness, solvent resistance, the ability to heal themselves once a crack is introduced and to be used as a resin for filled composite materials to further bolster their strength.
Also, the ability to selectively recycle a structural component would have significant impact in the semiconductor industry, advanced manufacturing or advanced composites for transportation, as one would be able to rework high-value but defective manufactured parts or chips instead of throwing them away. This could bolster fabrication yields, save money and significantly decrease microelectronic waste.