New ‘smart plastic’ could transform wearables

Researchers at the University of Texas have developed a new kind of ‘smart plastic’ capable of being rigid and flexible at the same time.

According to the research team the new material – that is 10 times as tough as natural rubber – could lead to more flexible electronics.

“This is the first material of its type,” said Zachariah Page, assistant professor of chemistry and corresponding author on the paper. “The ability to control crystallization, and therefore the physical properties of the material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for wearable electronics or actuators in soft robotics.”

The research team were inspired by the behavior of living organisms like trees and shellfish that are hard and rigid in some places and soft and stretchy in others.

Page and his team were able to control and change the structure of a plastic-like material, using light to alter how firm or stretchy the material would be.

They started with a monomer, a small molecule that binds with others like it to form the building blocks for larger structures called polymers. After testing a dozen catalysts, they found one that, when added to their monomer and shown visible light, resulted in a semicrystalline polymer similar to those found in existing synthetic rubber.

A harder and more rigid material was formed in the areas the light touched, while the unlit areas retained their soft, stretchy properties. The research team predicts the material could be used as a flexible foundation to anchor electronic components in medical devices or wearable tech.