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A shape-changing plastic with a flexible future| GuyWhoKnowsThings

With space and weight restrictions, what would you take if you went to Mars? An ideal option could be a unique material that can change the shapes of any object you imagine.

In the morning, you could shape that material into eating utensils. When you finish breakfast, you can transform your fork and knife into a shovel to take care of your Martian garden. And then when it's happy hour on the red planet, that shovel could become a mug for your martian beer.

What seems like science fiction is, perhaps, one step closer to reality. Researchers at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering have created a new type of plastic with properties that can be hardened with heat and then set with rapid cooling, a process known as annealing. Unlike classic plastics, the material retains this rigidity when it reaches room temperature again.

The results, published in Science magazine on Thursday, could one day change the way astronauts prepare for space.

“Instead of taking all the different plastics, you take this plastic and then give it the properties it needs,” said Stuart Rowan, a chemist at the University of Chicago and author of the new study. .

But space isn't the only place where the material could be useful. Dr. Rowan's team also sees its potential in other environments where resources are scarce, such as at sea or on the battlefield. It could also be used to make soft robots and improve plastic recycling.

“We all rely on plastics in our daily lives,” said Shrayesh Patel, a chemical engineer at the University of Chicago and author of the new study. But foam cups, garbage bags and eyeglass lenses, for example, require plastics with different properties.

On the other hand, a single material that can be adapted to different needs “simplifies the way plastics are made,” said Dr. Patel. He would also make plastic more sustainable because all the elements could be processed together when recycled. That plastic must be separated when recycled contributes to only a small fraction being reusedHe explained.

Modern plastics are made of chains of molecules permanently linked together, making them difficult to break down. But the Chicago researchers say their new material is “pluripotent” (a term typically used to describe the generic property of stem cells), or made of bonds that can be broken and re-formed using heat.

They were inspired by the way blacksmiths temper, or gradually heat and then rapidly cool, steel in a furnace. But unlike metal, plastics are lightweight and can be molded at temperatures achievable in an oven or stove.

The researchers heated the reddish, translucent plastic to temperatures between 140 and 230 degrees Fahrenheit and then stored it in a freezer to cool it quickly. When tempered at lower temperatures, more molecular bonds formed, making the plastic more rigid. But at higher temperatures, the material became softer and stickier.

The team molded the plastic to form a spoon stiff enough to scoop peanut butter from a jar and a fork that could pick up cheese. They also made an adhesive strong enough to hold two pieces of glass together and a small claw similar to what might be found on a toy machine.

Julia Kalow, a chemist at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study but wrote a perspective On Science's results, he found the idea of ​​a single material that could achieve a variety of unique and exciting properties. “Now that we know it could be useful to achieve this property, many other researchers will be inspired to find new ways to achieve that goal,” she said.

There are limitations to the first generation of pluripotent plastic. Although the team has shown that the material can be reprocessed at least seven times and maintain its shape for at least a month, there is uncertainty over its useful life.

“They're not going to be direct substitutes for basic plastics yet,” said Nicholas Boynton, a graduate student at the University of Chicago who led the study's experiments. The material cannot yet reach the hardness of a plastic bag, for example, or the elasticity of a rubber band.

“We're not there yet, but we're pretty close,” Boynton said. “I think having a material that can access this huge range is what's really exciting right now.”

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