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Polymer Strengthens Itself Using Carbon

Monday, October 15, 2018

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Taking a cue from plants, chemical engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed a new polymer that reacts with carbon dioxide drawn from the air, allowing the coating to strengthen itself. The material shows promise in being implemented in both protective coatings and construction.

The research, published in Advanced Materials, was conducted by Professor Michael Strano, postdoc Seon-Yeong Kwak and eight others at MIT and the University of California at Riverside.

Self-Strengthening Polymer

In developing these proof-of-concept experiments, the research team used chloroplasts obtained from spinach leaves. The chloroplasts are not alive, but still trigger the conversion of carbon dioxide into glucose. While isolated chloroplasts normally stop functioning within a few hours of being drawn from a plant, Strano and the other team members demonstrated methods to prolong the catalytic lifetime of the chloroplasts. The polymer also draws carbon dioxide from the air. 

“Imagine a synthetic material that could grow like trees, taking the carbon from the carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the material’s backbone,” Strano said.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Taking a cue from plants, MIT chemical engineers recently developed a new polymer that reacts with carbon dioxide drawn from the air, allowing the coating to strengthen itself. The material shows promise in being implemented in both protective coatings and construction.

According to MIT, the material used, “a gel matrix composed of a polymer made from aminopropyl methacrylamide and glucose, an enzyme called glucose oxidase,” along with the chloroplasts, becomes stronger as carbon is incorporated. Though current results are not yet strong enough to be used as a building material, there is potential for the material to work as a coating or crack filler.

The team, now focused on optimizing the material’s properties, has also developed methods to produce the polymer by the ton, though additional advances in backbone chemistry and materials science are needed before work can expand into construction materials and composites. One primary advantage to these kinds of materials is that they can repair themselves once exposed to sunlight as well as some kinds of indoor lighting. If the surface becomes damaged, the material is able to repair itself.

“Our work shows that carbon dioxide need not be purely a burden and a cost,” Strano said. “It is also an opportunity in this respect. There’s carbon everywhere. We build the world with carbon. Humans are made of carbon. Making a material that can access the abundant carbon all around us is a significant opportunity for materials science. In this way, our work is about making materials that are not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.”

Since results have been positive, the U.S. Department of Energy is backing a new program directed by Strano to further develop the material.


Tagged categories: Coating Materials; Polymers; Research and development

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