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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
IBM Stumbles Across New Class of Industrial Polymers That Could Revolutionize Manufacturing

Scientists from IBM Research say they have accidentally discovered a new class of polymer materials that could deliver cheaper, lighter, stronger and recyclable materials ideal for electronics, aerospace, airline and automotive industries.

The new materials, created by combining high-performance computing with synthetic polymer chemistry, demonstrate resistance to cracking, strength higher than bone, the ability to reform to their original shape (self-heal), and are completely recyclable back to their starting material. The materials also can be transformed into new polymer structures to further bolster their strength by 50 percent — making them ultra-strong and lightweight.

Polymers, a long chain of molecules that are connected through chemical bonds, are an indispensable part of everyday life. They are a core material in common items ranging from clothing and drink bottles (polyesters), paints (polyacrylics), plastic milk bottles (polyethylene) and secure food packaging (polyolefins, polystyrene) to major parts of cars and planes (epoxies, polyamides and polyimides). They are also essential components in virtually every emerging advanced technology dating back to the industrial revolution — the steam engine, the space ship, the computer, the mobile phone.

The problem is, 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). These polymers also 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 that are not biodegradable.

IBM says its 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. 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.

Speaking of IBM innovations, a team of research scientists at IBM and Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) have developed a way to convert common plastic materials such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into non-toxic and biocompatible materials designed to specifically target and attack fungal infections. The researchers say the so-called "ninja polymers" — sticky nanostructures that quickly target infected cells in the body, destroy the harmful content inside without damaging healthy cells in the area, and then biodegrade — may be a solution for safely destroying the antibiotic-resistant and sometimes-deadly superbug MRSA.

In other materials news, researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute recently developed a new process for the large-scale manufacturing of everyday objects — from cell phones to food containers and toys — using a fully degradable bioplastic made from shrimp shells. The Institute says the objects display many of the same properties as those created with synthetic plastics, but are more eco-friendly — even more so than most bioplastics on the market today in that they create no threat to trees or competition with the food supply.

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