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Recyclable superplastics made with old chemistry

Two materials — one strong, the other self-healing — are the first easily recycled high-performance polymers

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3:31pm, May 15, 2014

With an accidental tweak to a classic chemical reaction, scientists have created the first easily recyclable forms of mighty plastics. The discovery provides the potential to lower costs and reduce waste of everyday products, researchers say.

The two new nitrogen-containing materials, a superstrong plastic and a squishy, self-healing gel represent new types of thermosets, which are heat resistant and highly stable polymers. Thermosets are widely used, from automobiles and aerospace equipment to electronic devices, and are difficult if not impossible to recycle. But unlike other thermosets, the new polymers easily break down into their original components, ready to reassemble into something new.

Recycling these plastics is simple, says polymer chemist Jeannette García of IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. The process involves a splash of a liquid at a specific pH, she says. “This is a completely different paradigm for recycling.”

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