The popular perception of plastic is that it’s not the most resilient material we have at our disposal when it comes to wear and tear.
Yet, Duke researchers have developed a version that gives our favorite polymer a little more respect in the durability department. Their plastic not only withstands stress, it also solidifies under pressure as it undergoes small changes in its molecular structure. The material is a type of “mechanophore”: Mechanical stimuli, rather than chemicals, light, or heat, prompt its bonds to split and reform into a stronger arrangement. When researchers put their plastic to the test, compressing it in a technique called nanoindentation, it hardened two hundred-fold.
The study has generated significant buzz about potential applications, ranging from heart valves and aircraft materials to prosthetic limbs and iPhone cases. Stephen Craig ’91, a professor of chemistry at Duke and one of the study’s multiple authors, says there is good reason for the optimism. “The idea that you can take destructive energy and turn it into constructive energy is pretty exciting.”