http://www.digitaljournal.com/technology/op-ed-ibm-accidentally-discovers-new-family-of-polymers-changes-world/article/383862

Op-Ed: IBM accidentally discovers new family of polymers, changes world?

Posted May 15, 2014 by Paul Wallis
Maybe the invention of fire was a good idea, after all. A missed step in a process of polymerization has discovered a super tough type of polymer. These polymers are as tough as bones, and can be made tougher.
The IBM logo is seen outside the company s offices in Petah Tikva
The IBM logo is seen outside the company's offices in Petah Tikva
NIR ELIAS / Reuters
They’re not single chain polymers, but composite- and self-healing.
The New York Times:
As a research chemist at an IBM laboratory, Jeannette M. Garcia spends her days mixing and heating chemicals in pursuit of stronger and more easily recyclable plastics. Recently she followed a simple formula that required mixing three components in a beaker. Somehow she missed a step, leaving out a chemical. She returned to find her beaker filled with a hard white plastic that had even frozen the stirrer.
Dr. Garcia tried grinding the mystery material, to no avail. Then she took a hammer to the beaker to free it.
That laboratory error has led to the discovery of a new family of materials that are unusually strong and light, exhibit “self-healing” properties and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable.
IBM are calling the new material Titan or Hydro. The class of materials is called a thermoset, or heat-formed. The new material is currently the subject of research for commercial composite applications.
The new material can also be mixed with nanotubes to become harder still. The current vision for applications is in microelectronics.
IBM has invested heavily in new computational chemistry technologies that rely on supercomputers. The researchers were able to build a computer model of the new material, characterizing it in two distinct types, one that was “soft and gooey” and the other extremely rigid.
The different polymer structure has other ramifications- Traditional polymers are versatile, but typically fit the mold, excuse the expression, as soft materials. That means that a tough polymer can fill a lot of new roles.
A “soft and gooey” material, however, is a new step, perhaps into a different class of structures in design. Now consider the mix of both types. A soft and gooey quasi-liquid/paste may be a production engineer’s dream, easy to incorporate into a design of the hard version. You’re now looking at a materials revolution.
This material is also recyclable, a big plus in terms of costs for manufacturers if it becomes a returnable material in the market. Many major manufacturers have found recycling has a very positive effect on the bottom line, reducing net costs and creating a sustainable materials framework. Interface FLOR, a big US carpet manufacturer, for example, went sustainable over a decade ago, and cleaned up over half a billion dollars in production savings on water alone, let alone materials.
This particular product has a way to go, but it’s getting there. Popular Mechanics takes up the story:
“We were able to actually study the chemistry through our computational models, and then evaluate the final product for its reactivity,” Garcia says. (Jeannette M. Garcia, research staff member at IBM Research and lead author on the paper. She discovered it, literally in her beaker.) “We noticed that if you take the molecule and subject it to strong acid, like sulfuric acid, you would get complete chemical reversion back to the starting materials.”
The starting materials were a sort of putty. This is the gooey version. This is interesting in another way, in relation to one of the problems with working with this new polymer- The material can take heat up to 350C but needs to crank up its heat tolerance to around 425C, the temperature in some computer circuit distribution layers.
The term “thermal paste” refers to a class of carbon compounds which are said to be “superior to solder” but at a lower temperature range. What if the new polymer can operate as a thermal paste?
Science Direct refers to play old polyethylene glycol, a “garden variety” polymer, as a better option, including this interesting comment:
Carbon black is superior to materials that are more conductive thermally (graphite, diamond and nickel particles, and carbon filaments) in providing thermal pastes of high performance. The performance of thermal pastes and solder as thermal interface materials is mainly governed by their conformability and spreadability rather than their thermal conductivity.
Er…. Better than diamond? Better than crystalline structures? Structures are the strong suit of polymers. Carbon black is also very close to the nano range of particle sizes.
If Titan/Hydro can do this in some form, or work with another polymer option, the new polymer is holding a straight flush commercially. You could recycle it and separate the components with a spoon, almost literally, on mass alone.
Expect to be seeing a new range of unfamiliar, but good quality, materials hitting the market in about 5 years or less. Titan/Hydro solves a lot of production problems for manufacturers. They may not like change, but they can see the dollars well enough.