A Shape-Shifting Plastic With a Flexible Future

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With restrictions on space and weight, what would you bring if you were going to Mars? An ideal option might be a single material that can shift shapes into any object you imagine.

In the morning, you could mold that material into utensils for eating. When breakfast is done, you could transform your fork and knife into a spade to tend to your Martian garden. And then when it’s happy hour on the red planet, that spade could become a cup for your Martian beer.

What sounds like science fiction is, perhaps, one step closer to reality. Researchers at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering have created a new type of plastic with properties that can be set with heat and then locked in with rapid cooling, a process known as tempering. Unlike classic plastics, the material retains this stiffness when returned to room temperature.

The findings, published in the journal Science on Thursday, could someday change how astronauts pack for space.

“Rather than taking all the different plastics with you, you take this one plastic with you and then just give it the properties you need as you require,” said Stuart Rowan, a chemist at the University of Chicago and an author of the new study.

But space isn’t the only place the material could be useful. Dr. Rowan’s team also sees its potential in other environments where resources are scare — like at sea or on the battlefield. It could also be used to make soft robots and to improve plastics recycling.

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A Shape-Shifting Plastic With a Flexible Future

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