Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have created a new plastic-like material which can change its elasticity with the application of a catalyst. It’s hoped that the new material will eventually be used in a wide variety of applications, such as anchoring electronic components in medical devices, wearable tech, and improving the strength and flexibility of robots.
The team used a monomer that binds together to form polymers that are similar to those found in the most commonly used plastic. They then found a catalyst that could be integrated into the monomers to make them respond to visible light, which had the effect of creating a semi-crystalline polymer which was similar to those found in existing synthetic rubber. This new polymer was found to be a harder and more rigid material than the areas not exposed to light, which retained their soft, stretchy properties.
“This is the first material of its type,” said Zachariah Page, corresponding author on the paper. “The ability to control crystallization, and therefore the physical properties of the material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for wearable electronics or actuators in soft robotics.”
According to the researchers, commercialization would be possible as the experiment can be easily replicated away from laboratories, and is rapid, inexpensive, energy-efficient, and environmentally benign. Both the monomer and the catalyst are commercially available, and inexpensive blue LEDs were used as a light source in the experiment. Also, the reaction takes less than an hour and minimizes the use of any hazardous waste.
“We are looking forward to exploring methods of applying this chemistry towards making 3D objects containing both hard and soft components,” said first author Adrian Rylski, from UT Austin.