Researchers have developed a new plastic-like material that can become either soft and stretchy or stiff and rigid with only the application of a catalyst and visible light.
Inspired by living things like trees and shellfish, the material is ten times as tough as natural rubber. It could lead to more flexible electronics and robotics.
“This is the first material of its type,” says Zachariah Page, lieutenant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin and communicating author of the paper in the journal Science.
“The capacity to control crystallization, and therefore the physical properties of the material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for coated electronics or actuators in soft robotics.”
Scientists have long sought to mimic the properties of living structures, like muscle and skin, with synthetic materials. In living organisms, structures often combine attributes such as flexibility and strength with ease.
Page and his team could control and change the structure of a plastic-like material, using light to alter how firm or stretchy the material would be.
Chemists started with a monomer, a small molecule that binds with others like it to form the building blocks for larger structures called polymers, similar to the polymer found in the most commonly used plastic.
After testing a dozen catalysts, they found one that, Added to their monomer and exposed to visible light, resulted in a semicrystalline polymer similar to those found in existing synthetic rubber. A more complicated and rigid material formed in the areas the light touched, while the unlit areas retained their soft, stretchy properties.
Because the substance was made of one material with different properties, it was more potent and could be stretched farther than most mixed materials.
The researchers will next seek to develop more objects with the material to pursue to test its usability.
The team visualizes the material could be use as a flexible foundation to anchor electronic components in medical devices or wearable tech. In robotics, solid and flexible materials are desirable to improve movement and durability.
The National Science Foundation, the US Energy Department, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation funded the work.