"Smart Plastic" is a step forward towards flexible and flexible robots and electronics

“Smart Plastic” is a step forward towards flexible and flexible robots and electronics

AUSTIN, Texas – Inspired by organisms from trees to shellfish, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have set out to create plastic that looks a lot like many life forms that are hard and tough in some places and soft and stretchy in others. Their success — the first, by using only light and a catalyst to change properties such as hardness and flexibility in molecules of the same type — has resulted in a new material that is ten times stronger than natural rubber and could lead to more flexible electronics and robotics.

The results were published today in the journal Sciences.

“This is the first material of its kind,” said Zakaria Page, assistant professor of chemistry and corresponding author on the paper. “The ability to control crystallization, and thus the physical properties of a material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for wearable electronics or actuators in soft robotics.”

Scientists have long sought to mimic the properties of living structures, such as skin and muscles, using synthetic materials. In living organisms, structures often combine traits such as strength and flexibility with ease. When a mixture of different synthetic materials is used to imitate these qualities, the materials often fail, disintegrate and rupture at the junctions between the different materials.

Often, when grouping materials together, especially if they have very different mechanical properties, they want to disintegrate,” Page said. Page and his team were able to control and alter the structure of a plastic-like material, using light to change how hard or tensile the material is.

The chemists started with a monomer, a small molecule that binds to another molecule like it to form the building blocks of larger structures called polymers that were similar to the polymer found in more commonly used plastics. After testing a dozen catalysts, they found one that, when added to the monomer and showed visible light, resulted in a semi-crystalline polymer similar to that of existing elastomers. A stiffer and stiffer material was formed in the light-contacted areas, while the unlit areas retained their soft and stretchy properties.

Because the material was made of a single material with different properties, it was stronger and could stretch farther than most mixed materials.

The reaction takes place at room temperature, the monomer and catalyst are commercially available, and the researchers used inexpensive blue LEDs as the light source in the experiment. The reaction also takes less than an hour and minimizes the use of any hazardous waste, making the process quick, inexpensive, energy-saving and environmentally friendly.

The researchers will then seek to develop more organisms with the material to further test its usability.

“We look forward to exploring ways to apply this chemistry in order to make 3D objects that contain both hard and soft components,” said first author Adrian Rylski, a doctoral student at UT Austin.

The team envisions that the material could be used as a flexible basis to install electronic components in medical devices or wearable technology. In the field of robotics, it is desirable to use strong and flexible materials to improve mobility and durability.

Henry L. Cater, Clade S. Mason, Marshall J. Allen, and Anthony J. Arwood, Benny de Freeman, and Gabriel E. Sanoga of the University of Texas at Austin.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Energy, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation.

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