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Two-dimensional polymer is ‘stronger than steel and light as plastic’

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The strong and lightweight two-dimensional polymer could be used in cars, mobile phones, and large structures (Credit: Polymer film courtesy of the researchers/ Christine Daniloff, MIT)
The strong and lightweight two-dimensional polymer could be used in cars, mobile phones, and large structures (Credit: Polymer film courtesy of the researchers/ Christine Daniloff, MIT)

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a new material that is reportedly stronger than steel and light as plastic.

The new material, which they said can also be easily manufactured in large quantities, is a two-dimensional polymer that self-assembles into sheets – unlike all other polymers, which form one-dimensional, ‘spaghetti-like’ chains.

“Until now, scientists had believed it was impossible to induce polymers to form 2D sheets,” an MIT research announcement said.

The material’s unique properties could make it suitable for a wide variety of applications, from lightweight, durable coatings for car parts or mobile phones, to building materials for bridges or other structures, according to chemical engineer Professor Michael Strano, senior author of the new study.

“We don’t usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building, but with this material, you can enable new things,” he said. “It has very unusual properties and we’re very excited about that.”

Polymers, which include all plastics, consist of chains of building blocks called monomers. These chains grow by adding new molecules onto their ends. Once formed, polymers can be shaped into three-dimensional objects using injection moulding.

Scientists specialising in polymers have long hypothesised that if polymers could be induced to grow into a two-dimensional sheet, they should form extremely strong, lightweight materials.

Many decades of work in this field led to the conclusion that it was impossible to create such sheets, however. One reason is that if just one monomer rotates up or down, out of the plane of the growing sheet, the material will begin expanding in three dimensions.

In the new study, Professor Strano and his colleagues came up with a new polymerisation process that allows them to generate a two-dimensional sheet called a polyaramide. For the monomer building blocks, they use a compound called melamine, which contains a ring of carbon and nitrogen atoms. Under the right conditions, these monomers can grow in two dimensions, forming disks. These disks stack on top of each other, held together by hydrogen bonds between the layers, which make the structure very stable and strong.

“Instead of making a spaghetti-like molecule, we can make a sheet-like molecular plane, where we get molecules to hook themselves together in two dimensions,” said Professor Strano. “This mechanism happens spontaneously in solution, and after we synthesize the material, we can easily spin-coat thin films that are extraordinarily strong.”

Because the material self-assembles in solution, it can be made in large quantities by simply increasing the quantity of the starting materials. The researchers showed they could coat surfaces with films of the material, which they call 2DPA-1.

“With this advance, we have planar molecules that are going to be much easier to fashion into a very strong, but extremely thin material,” said Professor Strano.

The researchers found that the material’s ‘elastic modulus’ – a measure of how much force it takes to deform a material – is between four- and six-times greater than that of bulletproof glass. They also found that its yield strength, or how much force it takes to break the material, is twice that of steel, even though the material has only about one-sixth the density.

Another key feature of 2DPA-1 is that it is impermeable to gases. While other polymers are made from coiled chains with gaps that allow gases to seep through, the new material is made from monomers that lock together ‘like Lego’, and molecules cannot get between them.

“This could allow us to create ultrathin coatings that can completely prevent water or gases from getting through,” said Professor Strano. “This kind of barrier coating could be used to protect metal in cars and other vehicles, or steel structures.”

The professor and his students are now studying how the polymer is able to form 2D sheets in more detail, and are experimenting with changing its molecular makeup to create other types of novel materials.

The researchers have filed for two patents on the process they used to generate the material, which they described in a paper in Nature.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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