Dr. Garcia performing a chemistry experiment in IBM's polymer lab.
The world welcomed two new polymers on Thursday, codenamed Titan and Hydro, both of which came from the same reaction. One is rigid; it could become part of the next generation of computers. The other is a gel, so it it could be included in water-soluble nail polish.
IBM researcher Jeannette M. Garcia was among a team of nearly a dozen scientists and researchers who worked for more than a year on this discovery, and they are now submitting their findings to the peer review journal Science.
Humans have been creating synthetic polymers for the better part of a century, and they can now be found in everything from your steering wheel and favorite polyester suit to your computer and airplanes. But new polymer-forming chemical reactions like this one are extremely rare.
"Most [polymer] discoveries were made between 1930 and 1950," Garcia told Mashable.
Polymers are essentially macromolecues made up of 10,000 or more atoms and they occur in nature (rubber) and have been synthesized in the lab (Polystyrene).
Even though they were created from the same reaction, the two new polymers have distinct characteristics.
Titan is, naturally, the stronger one. According to IBM, it has bone-like strength (its measurements were similar to the organic material that frames our bodies) and roughly one-third of the tensile strength of steel. When IBM researchers combined Titan with 2% to 5% carbon nanotubes, however, they found they could make a material three times stronger than the polyamides sometimes used on current aircrafts.
Hydro is mostly liquid and quite flexible. It can also "self-heal"; according to Garcia, if you cut a blob of the polymer in two and then place the pieces next to each other (but don't force them together), they will combine back into one blob. One application could be for a powerful-on-contact adhesive.
The gel-like polymer's other key feature is its ability to revert to its starting material in water. This can happen slowly, which means it could be set up as a time-release gel. It could also work in tougher materials like paint or nail polish that are removed with water, as opposed to acetone.
Though quite different in makeup, the two polymers do share a common feature: Both are recyclable.Though quite different in makeup, the two polymers do share a common feature: Both are recyclable. Hydro is water-soluble, and Titan can, with a relatively light acid, be broken down into its components. This latter feature could potentially make polymer-based technology more recyclable than those built on non-recoverable polymers.
"The discovery of reversible thermosets [polymers] with mechanical and thermal properties that exceed long standing benchmarks is significant," Tim Long, a chemistry professor at Virginia Tech who has reviewed the discovery paper, told Mashable via email. "IBM uses their leadership in computing and modeling to accelerate discoveries for new advanced materials."
"[It's] hard to tell real significance until one sees actual commercial development," Professor Edwin L. Thomas, the dean of engineering at Rice University, added. Thomas is slightly more cautious in his assessment of the new polymers, but he added that the recycling angle holds real promise. "Thermosets have always been thought of as irreversible reactions. Once you cast the materials, you get a hard, tough and permanent (non-recyclable) material."
In particular, Thomas thinks the discovery could truly impact technology and said the use of the polymers in electronics might mean the ability to recover valuable precious metals, like gold, that are used to carry the electrons around the circuits. "Right now, all the e-waste goes to landfill," he said.
It could be months or even years before consumers see these polymers in action. Once the peer review is finished, IBM would need to find a manufacturer to produce Hydro and Titan in quantity.