Jeannette Garcia, 33
A chance discovery sparked a quest for plastics that are both strong and recyclable.
If Jeannette “Jamie” Garcia hadn’t been so obsessed with understanding what things are made of, she probably would have “red-canned” her big discovery—that is, tossed it in the trash.
It was the young chemist’s first week at IBM, and she had a simple task: mix three ingredients together in a flask and heat them up, the goal being to use one of those ingredients—a solution made from broken-down plastic bottles—as the basis for an even stronger material. After she combined the first two ingredients, she went off to weigh out the third. By the time she got back, the solution had solidified into something so hard that she needed a hammer to break it free. “A lot of people would’ve considered it a failed experiment,” Garcia says. But she adds: “I didn’t really want to just drop it. I wanted to try to figure out what I had made.”
It turned out that the plastic was not only much stronger than what she had originally been trying to make but entirely recyclable. Those properties made it a promising gateway to desirable new materials.
Plastics that harden when heated are nothing new; we use them in everything from electronics to airplanes. But these so-called thermosets are not remoldable once hardened and mostly end up as garbage because they are very difficult to recycle. The thermoset plastic that Garcia made, on the other hand, completely reverted to its base compound, or monomer, when soaked in acid. “As chemists,” she says, “if we understand what we’re doing well enough, then we can actually go in and undo it too, in just as efficient a way as we built it.”
Now, with the right monomers and the right temperatures, Garcia can make both super-strong recyclable plastics and moldable gels that solidify in their desired shape under ultraviolet light. She has nicknamed the first class of materials Titan and the second one Hydro.
There’s still work to do before they are ready for commercial applications. But now that we know recyclable thermosets are possible, Garcia says, we can think of how they might replace materials we’ve been using for decades.
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