Scientists Discover a Lightweight Material Stronger Than Steel

A new patented process for making lightweight material stronger than steel.

People don’t usually think of plastics as being something that can support a building, but with a new material patented by MIT researchers, this is about to change.

MIT chemical engineers led by postdoc Yuwen Zeng have been working on a new material called 2DPA-1 that is ‘stronger than steel and as light as plastic, and can be easily manufactured in large quantities. They have achieved this through using a novel polymerization process, which they have now filed ‘two patents on the process they used to generate the material.’

The MIT engineers have secured funding to do this research from the CENT research center sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and the Army Research Laboratory.


What are polymers?

1024px Polymer chain SPT
Polymer chain by SPT Paul Topham under CC BY-SA 4.0 gives this description of what polymers are A polymer is any of a class of natural or synthetic substances composed of very large molecules, called macromolecules, which are multiples of simpler chemical units called monomers. Polymers make up many of the materials in living organisms and are the basis of many minerals and artificial materials.’ describes the uses for polymers Polymers are used in almost every area of modern livingGrocery bags, soda and water bottles, textile fibers, phones, computers, food packaging, auto parts, and toys all contain polymers. Even more-sophisticated technology uses polymers.’

People typically would associate polymers with plastic, not as something that has steel-like capabilities.


Achieving what was previously thought impossible

The new material, which has steel-like strength, ‘is a two-dimensional polymer that self-assembles into sheets, unlike all other polymers, which form one-dimensional, spaghetti-like chains.’

Until now, after many decades of trying, scientists had believed that ‘it was impossible to induce polymers to form 2D sheets.’

One reason scientists didn’t think it was possible to create 2D sheets is if just one monomer (a molecule that can react together with another monomer) ‘rotates up or down, out of the plane of the growing sheet, the material will begin expanding in three dimensions, and the sheet-like structure will be lost.’


In this new polymerization process, MIT scientists used a compound called melamine for the monomer building blocks. The melamine contains a ring of carbon and nitrogen atoms. Under the right conditions, scientists can get these monomers to grow in two dimensions, forming disks. The disks stack on top of each other and are held together by hydrogen bonds between the layers, making the structure very stable and strong.

Melamine A
Melamine by Aariuser I under CC BY-SA 2.0

Michael Strano, Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, explains how they can make the incredibly strong material, “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,”

As a result, “This mechanism happens spontaneously in solution, and after we synthesize the material, we can easily spin-coat thin films that are extraordinarily strong.”


The team envisages 2DPA-1 has many potential applications. They say it could be used as a durable coating for car parts, cell phones, or building materials for bridges.

Not only light and strong, but also impermeable to gases

Not only does the great strength of 2DPA-1 have many benefits, ‘Another key feature of 2DPA-1 is that it is impermeable to gases.’  Other polymer materials, under the microscope, ‘are made from coiled chains with gaps that allow gases to seep through..’ 2DPA-1 ‘is made from monomers that lock together like LEGOs, and molecules cannot get between them.’

2DPA-1 can be used to create “ultrathin coatings that can completely prevent water or gases from getting through,” This kind of barrier coating would have applications such as to “protect metal in cars and other vehicles, or steel structures.”


It will be exciting to see what uses manufacturers come up with for 2DPA-1 in the future.

Feature image credit: MiT ,Michael Strano and Yuwen Zeng

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