'Plastic Steel': Optically Transparent Plastic Nanocomposites

"Plastic steel", an optically transparent nanocomposite has provided Paul Podsiadlo, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, with an award at the 2008 Collegiate Inventors Competition.

"Plastic steel" is stiff and ultra strong, with properties approaching the values of steel and its alloys. Podsiadlo creates the material layer by layer from nanometer-thin wafers of clay nanosheets and polymer; the end product has hundreds of layers.

('Plastic steel' Paul Posiadlo's polymer matrix nanocomposite)
Fig. 1. Preparation of PVS-MTM nanocomposite. (A) Schematic representation of the internal architecture of PVA-MTM composite (picture shows 5.5 bilayers). (B) Atomic force microscopy phase image of a single PVA-MTM bilayer adsorbed on top of a silicon wafer. Top inset gives a simplified schematic representation of the microscopy image. Lower inset is a 1 μm x 1 μm close up of the main image showing individual MTM platelets more clearly. (C) Compilation of UV-V is absorbance spectra collected after multiples of 25 bilayers of PVA-MTM composite deposited on a microscope glass slide. (D) Free-standing, 300-bilayer PVA-MTM composite film showing high flexibility and high transparency. Lower image is taken at an angle to show diffraction colors.

The structure of this artificial material resembles that of the nacre found in seashells. Podsiadlo envisions this material being used in a variety of applications, from body armor to biomedical coatings. Research for the project was initially funded by the U.S. Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health.

Science fiction fans prick up their ears whenever anyone mentions "plastic steel" or transparent materials that are as strong as steel. Frank Herbert popularized the idea of science-fictional plasteel in his 1965 novel Dune.

Star Trek fans will, of course, recall the transparent aluminum from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Scotty barters the formula to an alert 20th century plastics executive.

(The completed formula for transparent aluminum)

I'm looking forward to being able to pick up sheets of plastic steel at my local hardware store before I retire. From Alum wins national invention competition with “plastic steel” and UM Engineering.

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