Plasteel? UM's New Ultrastrong Nanocomposite

An ultrastrong and stiff layered polymer nanocomposite created by University of Michigan researchers is science-fictional stuff. Engineering professor Nicholas Kotov almost called it "plastic steel."

"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," Kotov said. "We've demonstrated that one can achieve almost ideal transfer of stress between nanosheets and a polymer matrix."

Reearchers used a robotic machine to carefully build up this layered material one nanoscale layer at a time.

The robotic machine consists of an arm that hovers over a wheel of vials of different liquids. In this case, the arm held a piece of glass about the size of a stick of gum on which it built the new material. The arm dipped the glass into the glue-like polymer solution and then into a liquid that was a dispersion of clay nanosheets. After those layers dried, the process repeated. It took 300 layers of each the glue-like polymer and the clay nanosheets to create a piece of this material as thick as a piece of plastic wrap.

The glue-like polymer used in this experiment, which is polyvinyl alcohol, was as important as the layer-by-layer assembly process. The structure of the "nanoglue" and the clay nanosheets allowed the layers to form cooperative hydrogen bonds, which gives rise to what Kotov called "the Velcro effect." Such bonds, if broken, can reform easily in a new place.

Readers remembered the plasteel from Frank Herbert's Dune novels:

Then Kynes was beside Paul and they threw their weight against the door... Kynes indicated the cabinets against the right-hand wall, said: "This way." He crossed to the first cabinet, opened a drawer, manipulated a handle within it. The entire wall of cabinets swung open to expose the black mouth of a tunnel. "This door also is plasteel," Kynes said.

"You were well prepared," Jessica said.

"We lived under the Harkonnens for eighty years," Kynes said.
(Read more about plasteel)

Older fans may recall that Harlan Ellison used it first in his 1956 story Trojan Hearse. Ancient fans might remember that the term "plasteel" was first used in WWII and referred to steel covered with plastic used to replace precious aluminum (needed for the war effort).

Not to wear out your memory, but the material is also transparent, according to the press release. This has fans salivating for the fabled transparent aluminum of the Star Trek universe.

The real-life nanocomposite material could be used to create lighter, stronger armor for soldiers; it could also have applications in microelectromechanical devices, microfluidics, biomedical sensors and valves and unmanned aircraft, according to Professor Kotov.

Via U-M research: New plastic is strong as steel. Thanks to readers Pipedreamergrey and Miez for writing in with this one.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/5/2007)

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