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New Bioinspired Material Could Replace Plastics

Researchers in China have developed a method to manufacture a plastic alternative that is strong, tough, and heat resistant

Based on different commercially-available raw materials (e.g., TiO2-mica, Fe2O3-mica), a variety of all-natural bioinspired structural materials with different colors can be fabricated.
GUAN Qingfang

Modern life relies closely on plastics, even though the petroleum-based production creates serious environmental challenges. The industry hasn't opted to use sustainable materials due to their limited mechanical properties or complex manufacturing processes. An advanced strategy to design and produce high-performance sustainable structural materials is therefore of great need.

A new bioinspired material is here to overtake petroleum-based plastics. A team led by professor Shu-Hong Yu from the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) reports a method to manufacture materials with similar structure to nacre from wood-derived fiber and mica, with adaption to mass production, good processability, and tunable coloration.

Natural nacre has a hierarchically-ordered structure at multiscale levels, just like bricks and mortar, enabling it to be both strong and tough. Inspired by nacre, the researchers mimic the ordered brick-and-mortar structure using the TiO2-coated mica microplatelet (TiO2-mica) and cellulose nanofiber (CNF) by the proposed directional deforming assembly method.

This figure shows a mobile phone case prototype made from this bioinspired material. Thanks to its good processability, the material can be fabricated into desired shape and size, showing a vast potential to replace plastics for practical applications, for example, structural support for a high-end personal electronic device.
GUAN Qingfang

This method directly presses the hydrogel of TiO2-mica and CNF, while keeping the size on in-plane directions unchanged. The thickness of the hydrogel is dramatically reduced and materials are directly constructed with the highly ordered brick-and-mortar structure.

At the nanoscale, the TiO2 nano-grains on the surface of TiO2-mica lead to efficient energy dissipation by frictional sliding during TiO2-mica pull-out. All the hierarchically-ordered structure at multiscale levels contribute to the load redistribution and toughness enhancement.

The obtained materials have excellent strength (~281 MPa) and toughness (~11.5 MPa m1/2), which are more than two times higher than those of high-performance engineered plastics (e.g., polyamides, aromatic polycarbonate), making it a strong competitor to petroleum-based plastics.

Even better, these materials adapt to temperatures ranging from -130°C to 250°C, while normal plastics easily get soft at high temperature. Therefore, such materials are safer and more reliable at high or variable temperatures.