As a research chemist at an IBM laboratory, Jeannette M. Garcia spends her days mixing and heating chemicals in pursuit of stronger and more easily recyclable plastics. Recently she followed a simple formula that required mixing three components in a beaker. Somehow she missed a step, leaving out a chemical. She returned to find her beaker filled with a hard white plastic that had even frozen the stirrer.
Dr. Garcia tried grinding the mystery material, to no avail. Then she took a hammer to the beaker to free it.
That laboratory error has led to the discovery of a new family of materials that are unusually strong and light, exhibit “self-healing” properties and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable.
The materials — two new types of synthetic polymers — could have applications for transportation. Because of their recyclability, they also could have an impact on consumer products, as well as on the industrial packaging for microelectronics components.
The findings were reported on Thursday in the journal Science by a research team at IBM’s Almaden Research Laboratory in San Jose, Calif.
There are countless stories of discoveries in chemistry made by mistake, including saccharin and the vulcanization process for rubber. Here is yet another.