New Plastic as Strong as Steel

By mimicking structures found in seashells, scientists have created a transparent plastic that is as strong as steel.

For years scientists have tried to build sturdy materials for larger products from ultrastrong nano-size building blocks, such as nanotubes, nanosheets and nanorods, only to have the larger structures turn out comparatively weak.

"When you tried to build something you can hold in your arms, scientists had difficulties transferring the strength of individual nanosheets or nanotubes to the entire material," said study leader Nicholas Kotov of the University of Michigan.

To solve this problem, Kotov and his colleagues have devised a process that builds materials one nanoscale layer at a time, similar to the way that mother-of-pearl, the iridescent lining of mussel, oyster and other mollusk shells, is built.

They built a machine that dips a piece of glass about the size of a stick of gum alternately into a glue-like polymer solution and a dispersion of clay nanosheets. These materials form cooperative hydrogen bonds with each other across the layers, which give rise to a "Velcro effect," Kotov explained.

This effect, coupled with the arrangement of the nanosheets in a brick-and-mortar structure, make the final product (as thick as a piece of plastic wrap) very strong. The developers say that the product could be widely available in a relatively short period of time.

"The technology of preparation of these materials is pretty simple," Kotov told LiveScience. "So, if someone decides to make it happen, it could be available on the market in a year or less."

The process is detailed in the Oct. 5 issue of the journal Science.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.