The future of better plastics is here! A team of researchers in Japan has developed a type of plastic that can repair itself. It could be used in smartphones, cars, and many other applications, reducing the amount of plastic that ends up discarded and polluting the environment.
Coming from scientists at the University of Tokyo, the self-repairing material involves a mixture between conventional plastic and a specialized agent that enables the material to heal its cracks and fissures.
“The technique could lead to the development of a sustainable made-to-last plastic that does not need to be discarded or recycled,” said study author Takuzo Aida, a chemistry professor at the University of Tokyo.
According to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), more than 90 percent of plastic isn’t recycled globally. Most of the plastic we produce ends up in landfills, incinerators, and our oceans where it can take centuries to break down.
Reduce the need for more plastic
The new development wants to help solve the plastic pollution problem by reducing the need for some plastics in the first place. At the base of the invention is a substance called polyether thiourea. As part of their latest study, Aida and his colleagues used the substance to create a plastic that can repair its cracks by pressing the fragmented pieces against each other at room temperature.
When typical plastic degrades, the chains of molecules that form the material break down. To mend those molecules back for recycling, the plastic has to be melted at high temperatures, which is an energy-intensive process.
This novel material, however, fixes broken molecule chains thanks to a process called hydrogen bonding. When broken pieces are pressed against one another at room temperature for about an hour, the material will regenerate and regain durability. Not only that, but internal scars that are not visible at the surface can also repair themselves, according to the team.
Potential applications for the breakthrough material include smartphone screens, home appliances, furniture, eyeglasses frames, and even cars.