About 4.6% of the petroleum we use in the U.S. goes into plastic production. The thing about plastics is that they're not all used to make food containers and cheap toys. There's plastic in all sorts of things that we rely on every day, from medical supplies to electronics. What if we could still make all of those useful products using just a fraction of petroleum?
According to a team of Japanese researchers, we might be able to do just that by combining clay, water, and a special thickening agent.
By combining small percentages of clay and less than half a percent of "organic compounds" in solution with water, Takuzo Aida and his team created a strong, self-healing plastic! The resulting material is called a hydrogel. According to the study, published in Nature:
This material can be moulded into shape-persistent, free-standing objects owing to its exceptionally great mechanical strength, and rapidly and completely self-heals when damaged.
The key ingredient in this plastic is sodium polyacrylate, a material that's super absorbent. It absorbs something like 300 times its weight in water.
Just because a compound is organic, though, doesn't mean it's safe. A little searching turned up sodium polyacrylate on this list of dangerous chemicals from Nature's Paradise. According to the list, the compound has "multiple additive exposure, endocrine system disruption and contamination concerns if not handled properly."
That said, the new plastic contains only a tiny percentage of the stuff, and I haven't been able to find any other mentions of concerns about this compound's safety.
The mud plastic isn't quite perfected yet. Aida and his team are still working out the proportions of water/sodium polyacrylate/clay, but they're sounding optimistic about where this is going:
With the world’s focus on reducing our dependency on fossil-fuel energy, the scientific community can investigate new plastic materials that are much less dependent on petroleum than are conventional plastics. Given increasing environmental issues, the idea of replacing plastics with water-based gels, so-called hydrogels, seems reasonable.
So what do you guys think? Is this a game-changing product, or do you have concerns?
I don't know about you guys, but all this plastic talk has this scene from The Graduate stuck in my head:
Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by brunogirin
[Via Mother Jones]