“Impossible” plastic-like material could make laptops, smartphones even thinner and sturdier

polymer film
(Image credit: Christine Daniloff, MIT)

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a new material using a new polymerizing process. The material, called 2DPA-1, a type of polyaramide, is said to be as light as plastic and as strong as steel; even better, it can be manufactured at industrial scale which bodes well for its go-to-market timeframe.

The material, which is the first polymer to be polymerized in 2D, adopts a planar structure, as opposed to a string one; think spaghetti lines and lasagne sheets. The team, led by Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, managed to crack a problem that has left many generations of Ppolymer scientists befuddled.

2DPA-1 can sustain deformative forces up to six times greater than bulletproof glass and has a yield strength (the force required to break the material) 12 times that of steel at equal density. Another intriguing property is that it is impermeable to gases which could mean waterproof ultrathin coatings.

What does that mean for consumers and businesses?

It is still early days but 2DPA-1 could mark the beginning of something very special. Rolling the process out (patents have already been filed) could take a few years but its impact on everyday life won’t take too long given that the new polymerization process uses existing technology.

From ultrathin, totally waterproof coatings to super light chassis for laptops and smartphones (in lieu of say magnesium or aluminum alloys), there’s plenty of scope in a variety of industries. It could replace paint to protect metal in certain cases, replace metal in bridges and structures that require high tensile strength and malleability.

It could even become an integral part of data centers as it could help produce waterproof servers that do not need active cooling systems or be used to produce safer vehicles. The next step in the research is to understand how the polymer turns into 2D sheets in the first place and whether other types of materials can be produced (e.g. 3D version).

Other questions remain: how safe is it when burnt? At what temperature does it ignite? Is it food-safe? How does it degrade?

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.