The Big Question: Is smart plastic really a smart alternative to plastic?

Why we are asking this now?

This question has gained prominence these days because smart plastics use ultraviolet light for repair, which is different from normal plastics, that uses heat for repairing. The ultraviolet light is focused only over the damaged area. This plastic is developed by researchers at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. The self-repairing capabilities of this plastic makes it better than the normal plastic that is in use today. The researchers the self-repairing smart plastic can be used as paint and they can be used by doctors in surgeries as well.

Smart plastic

This plastic is different from normal plastic because it is made of small molecules, whereas the structure of normal plastic is made of long molecules. The molecular held the smaller molecules together and when ultra violet light is focused on the smart plastic this structure get unglued, allowing the plastic to get its self-repairing abilities.

Is it really that serious?

There is no denying the fact that plastic has become an integral part of our life as we are using it nearly every aspect of our day to day life. The toothbrush, which is the first thing that we use after waking up, is also made of plastic. Smart plastic has the potential to replace the normal plastic mainly because of its self-repairing ability. This plastic can emerge as a good alternative for normal plastic in fashion, packaging and medical industries. This plastic can also be used to make large lenses, because when this plastic is repaired using ultra violet light, the repair remains transparent. The domes over aircraft radar can also be made using the new innovative smart plastic.

What others are saying

Lead researcher Professor Stuart Rowan, from Case Western Reserve University in the US, said:

These polymers have a Napoleon complex. In reality they’re pretty small but are designed to behave like they’re big by taking advantage of specific weak molecular interactions.

Mark Bunworth, another member of the Case Western Reserve research team said:

By using light, we have more control as it allows us to target only the defect and leave the rest of the material untouched.

The developments

1. Japanese researchers turn to ‘Smart Mud’ for greener, self-healing plastics

Smart Mud

Japanese researchers are trying to create green plastic by creating plastic using clay, water and a special thickening agent. The sodium polyacrylate used in this plastic is a super absorbent that can absorb 300 times its weight in water. This organic material however, has some safety concerns, because it can disrupt the endocrine system.

2. Self-healing plastic for sustainable electronics

Self healing plastic

University of Groningen’s chemists deserve credit for developing a new plastic that can be recycled and also be used to make electronic devices. This thermosetting does not decompose and self repairs itself when heated. Polyketones are the building blocks of this plastic. Bismaleimide, an organic compound, is used to cross-link these polyketones. This plastic can be recycled seven times and it still retains its structural and elemental characteristics.

3. Plastic heal thyself: Materials mimic vascular networks

plastic heal thyself

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a self-healing plastic. This human body inspired plastic features a vascular network similar to what we have seen in biological organisms and this network allows it to repair itself. The scientists have used the advanced version of ‘lost wax casting process’, to form micro channels in the substrate used in the plastic and the substrate is filled with healing fluid.

The main hurdles

There is no denying the fact that the smart plastic is advantageous than the normal plastic and it should replace the normal plastic in future but before doing that we need to confirm some facts related to the smart plastic. The most important question is: Will the plastic be able to repair itself if it gets damaged from the same place more than once? We also need to determine the shelf life of the new plastic before using it commercially.

What can be done

We can use the self-healing capability of the smart plastic to use it for several useful purposes. The new plastic needs ultra violet light to heal itself. If the researchers manage to clear the major doubts related with this plastic then it will definitely emerge as a good alternative for the normal plastic. Since this plastic is recyclable, it will also reduce the problem of plastic waste.