This Miracle Material Is Stronger Than Steel But Lighter Than Plastic

Chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a new material that is stronger than steel but lighter than plastic, according to MIT News. The breakthrough happened after researchers at MIT crafted a two-dimensional polymer –- a molecular structure in which similar units are bonded together –- that self-forms into sheets.

The new polymer has been dubbed 2DPA-1, and according to the journal Nature, its developers have applied for two patents that could allow this material to be produced in bulk. If all goes as the scientists hope, their discovery could revolutionize the way plastic coatings are made.

"We don't usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building, but with this material, you can enable new things," said Michael Strano, an MIT professor and the senior author of the study, in the MIT News article. "It has very unusual properties and we're very excited about that."

Strano noted that the material could eventually be used as a coating for items such as car parts and cell phones. Its lightness and durability mean that once in production, it's possible to make high quantities of 2DPA-1 quickly and efficiently.

The discovery could revolutionize how plastic is made

All other known polymers form one-dimensional strains that resemble spaghetti, MIT News noted. Following decades of studies, scientists had concluded that polymers could not be formed into two-dimensional strains (via Fast Company). This new finding formally proved them wrong. Researchers developed what is called a polyaramide, which self-assembles into the 2D sheets when put into a solution. Making vast quantities of the polyaramide requires only an increase in the compound melamine that is used to produce it.

Plastic is often demonized in modern times, as it's frequently formed into disposable items like to-go food containers and styrofoam that are used once and discarded to waste piles, which often end up in the ocean. But as Fast Company noted, advances in the science around plastic have led to world-changing innovations as large as airplanes and as small as the cell phone that's in your pocket.

2DPA-1 improves upon traditional plastics because its sheet-like structure is up to six times stronger than bulletproof glass, per MIT News. Additionally, breaking the polymer takes a force twice as strong as that used to break steel. All told, the electronic devices of the future could be much stronger as a result.