New Class of Polymers Waiting to Be Commercialized: Meet Titan and Hydro

New Class of Polymers Waiting to Be Commercialized: Meet Titan and Hydro

By Marija Jovic

Making discoveries by accident is still applicable. In 2014, IBM discovered a new class of materials – thermoset recyclable polymers. This discovery has the potential to disrupt almost every industry including engineering, transportation and aerospace, as well as semiconductors industry. It was published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, Science.

Not a Routine Experiment After All

When it comes to polymers – serendipity is not common. Aside from the discovery of Teflon, there are limited examples. Looking at Teflon’s a great discovery was made by recognizing that something new and unexpected happened, and wanting to investigate further. The same is true for IBM.

In 2014, in their research lab in Almaden, CA, Jeannette Garcia, a young polymer chemist, was doing what was supposed to be a standard experiment, when she noticed that not everything is going by the book. After mixing two components, and while reaching out for the third, a reaction happened. A white material formed inside the flask. Instead of declaring it a failed experiment, and throwing it into the trash, Garcia decided to understand what happened. The material was so hard that she had to break the flask to get it out. Upon careful investigation and deconstruction of the material, it became evident that a new class of plastic was invented – a thermoset material that can be recycled an infinite number of times. Because of it’s strength, it was nicknamed Titan.

Material Properties

Materials known as thermosets have been around for a very long time (since early 1900’s), and are being used in a variety of applications, such as electronic chips, composite materials, coatings, lenses and dental fillings. During their formation process, they undergo a chemical change creating the three-dimensional network. This gives them properties such as high strength and high temperature resistance, but it also means that they cannot be re-molten and reformed, or in other words recycled.

The key difference in the material Garcia made is exactly that it can be reformed. It can completely be reverted to its base compounds, or monomers, when soaked for 18h in diluted acid (like sulfuric acid for example). In addition to that, this material is lightweight, resistant to solvents, and stronger than bone.

Disadvantages are that it can be brittle, that there are other plastics (like Kevlar) that are stronger, it needs to be used in combination with other polymers for maximum effect, and finally, it is still not yet on the market.

Material Application

Titan’s strength is roughly one-third of the tensile strength of steel. When IBM researchers combined Titan with 2% to 5% carbon nanotubes, it turned out that the obtained composite material was three times stronger than some materials used on current aircrafts! Most materials used in transportation and aerospace are not recyclable and have to be thrown away after use. Therefore, this class of materials can potentially be a game changer by extending the life of aircraft components, reducing waste and the waste of resources and leading to significant cost savings.  Another industry that might be impacted by this new class of materials is the semiconductor industry, where defective chips can be reworked instead of being discarded, again saving money and reducing waste.

Future Research

Together with Titan, Garcia and her colleagues discovered a second form of the material called Hydro. Even though created from the same type of reaction, these polymers have very different characteristics. While Titan is rigid, Hydro is a gel like substance with self-healing properties, and forms at lower temperatures. It could be used as an on-contact adhesive, or as a self-healing paint.

Other, related compounds could follow, now that we know that recyclable thermosets are possible. This class of polymers is “tunable,” meaning that with different monomers and different temperatures particular attributes can be emphasized.

Still, it will take some time before consumers see these polymers in real-life action. With the global demand for durable, recyclable plastics expecting to increase (by 2015, for example, both Europe and Japan will require that 95 percent of car parts produced to be recyclable), the development of this new class of material might be expedited. In addition to that, these intriguing materials can expand their application beyond transportation and semiconductors into areas such as antimicrobial coatings, drug delivery, 3-D printing, and water purification, among others. So, we can slowly start thinking how these new materials might replace ones we have been using for decades.

Image courtesy of

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.