Thermosetting Plastic: Self-healing and Recyclable

In IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Dr. Jeanette Garcia accidentally created a new class of thermosetting plastic.

This new plastic is lightweight, stronger than bone, completely recyclable and self-healing.

While working in the lab, Garcia discovered that a solution in a flask hardened. After many attempts to break it and once her stirring bar got stuck, she found that it was both incredibly strong and stable.

After her accidental discovery, Garcia worked with IBM’s computational chemistry team to replicate the discovery and learn more about the plastic.

The new thermosetting polymer, called polyhexahydrotriazine (PHT,) is formed from a reaction of paraformaldehyde and 4,4-oxydianiline (ODA,) which are both used in current polymer production. This means that the production of PHT could be easily achieved through a simple adaptation of current processes.

It is the first thermosetting plastic that can be recycled. Typically, thermosetting plastic begins by being shaped and then cured (baked.) Once the plastic is cured, it can no longer be altered or recycled. After its life, thermosetting plastic is always thrown out. However, this new plastic can be reverted back to its base state with the use of sulfuric acid.

Thermosetting plastic is used for a variety of purposes including automobiles and aircraft due to its resilient but lightweight qualities. The polymers are usually mixed with carbon fibers to form composites.

Dr. James Hedrick, in charge of research at IBM, is excited by the prospective directions the plastic could take.

For the large and expensive aircraft materials alone, the ability to recycle and reuse would save a great deal of money and reduce waste.

“We’re at the discovery phase,” Hedrick said. “There are many new applications for the plastic with potential industries such as aerospace, transportation, electronics, cosmetics and architecture/construction. Almost every industry has the potential to be impacted by this discovery.”

“Every time you discover a new polymer-forming reaction, it leads to all sorts of new materials,” he said. “Applications are running like water.”

While adapting the process, the researchers also discovered flexible, self-healing gels that could be used for the production of drug capsules in particular, due to its solubility properties.

Although this new discovery does not directly affect poverty, the simple reduction of plastic waste would greatly help the environment and the economy and, in turn, poverty. The contamination of the oceans and sea life from plastic can begin to be reduced. Numerous industries would benefit economically and create more jobs, which would help reduce poverty around the world.

– William Ying

Sources: BBC, Wired, Extreme Tech, Gizmodo
Photo: Altairenlighten.com