MIT scientists filed two patents on a new, 2D material that's stronger than steel

It could strengthen smartphones, bridges, and more.
Brad Bergan
The novel, 2D polymer (left), and a bridge under construction (right).1, 2

Materials science just made a huge breakthrough.

MIT scientists have engineered a novel 2D polymer material that can self-assemble into sheets, despite weighing the same as plastic, and can even scale to massive levels of production, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

And, crucially, it's even stronger than steel. So the scientists filed two patents on the novel material.

MIT scientists filed two patents on a new material

The new material was forged via a new polymerization process, and it allowed the MIT chemical engineers to avoid the pitfalls of other polymers, which typically form into one-dimensional, noodle-like chains. This represents a breakthrough in 2D polymer material that could serve as a lightweight and robust coat for automotive parts, smartphones, and even the construction material for bridges and other urban buildings, said Michael Strano, MIT's Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering, who is senior author of the study, in a blog post on MIT's official website.

"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 Strano in the blog post. "It has very unusual properties and we're very excited about that." In the wake of creating this material, the researchers filed two patents on the process that enabled them to build the material. But what exactly is a two-dimensional polymer?

Keeping the polymer in two dimensions

Polymers are a substance that includes all plastics, and are made of tiny building blocks connected in a chain, called monomers. Once formed into chains, they can grow by adding more molecules to either side. Eventually, they can be morphed and folded into 3D objects we're extremely familiar with, like bottles, via injection molding. Polymer researchers have theorized that they might discover a way to make polymers grow in a two-dimensional sheet — and that his hypothetical material would be unconscionably strong, and easily form a simple, lightweight substance. But decades of work on this dream had yielded nothing, leaving many to suspect it was just another pipe dream.

This wasn't a defeatist attitude; there were good reasons for doubting it'd ever happen: for example, if only one single monomer rotates down or up, outside of the growing sheet's plane, the domain of the novel material will start to grow in three dimensions, eliminating all hope for the sheet-like structure with the unique qualities needed for next-level applications. This is why, in the new study, Strano and his colleagues conceived of a fresh polymerization process that helped them create a 2D sheet, known as a polyaramide. Another substance composed of nitrogen and carbon atoms, called melamine, helped "focus" the monomers, so they'd only grow in two dimensions.

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More novel materials are on MIT's horizon

With all of these methods combined into one incredible engineering proof, the researchers coerced the polymer to form into disks, which were then stacked like pancakes, "glued" together via hydrogen bonds between each layer — the secret to the materials uncommon strength. "Instead of making a spaghetti-like molecule, we can make a sheet-like molecular plane, where we get molecules to hook themselves together in two dimensions," said Strano, in the MIT blog post. "This mechanism happens spontaneously in solution, and after we synthesize the material, we can easily spin-coat thin films that are extraordinarily strong."

What it means for building materials - This material can autonomously self-assemble in a solution, which means engineers can turn out enormous yields by raising the number of initial materials. And, with proof that the new material can substantially increase the strength of others by coating their surfaces, the engineers dubbed it 2DPA-1. "With this advance, we have planar molecules that are going to be much easier to fashion into a very strong, but extremely thin material," said Strano. And, in the coming years, he and his team at MIT aim to explore what other new kinds of materials might be discovered, by playing around with 2DPA-1's molecular makeup.

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