Self-growing polymer captures carbon dioxide and strengthens, repairs itself

While the team has produced the material in bulk, it needs a few tweaks before going commercial.

Scientists have taken a page from green plants and created a gel-like polymer that uses carbon dioxide from the air to grow, strengthen, even mend itself.

The creators, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California-Riverside, developed the material with future applications of the polymer in construction, repair or protective coatings in mind.

The results were published in the journal Advanced Materials.

A life-like carbon-fixing polymer 

“This is a completely new concept in materials science,” says Professor Michael Strano, lead author of the study to MIT press.

“What we call carbon-fixing materials don’t exist yet today outside the biological realm.”

The carbon absorberbing polymer represented here with molecules of AMPA, glucose. Image courtesy: MIT

The carbon absorbing polymer represented here with molecules of AMPA, glucose. Image courtesy: MIT

Strano functionally described the material as a synthetic material that could grow on trees, take carbon from carbon dioxide and add them to its material backbone to grow.

The material doesn’t just avoid fossil fuels in its creation, but eats up carbon dioxide from the air and transforms it into a solid, stable form using sunlight, akin to plants.

Limited in shelf-life and strength

The polymer is made up of three primary components — aminopropyl methacrylamide (APMA), glucose and chloroplasts — along with an enzyme called glucose oxidase that allows it to add carbon molecules to its own chemical backbone.

While the researchers have managed to produce the polymer in tonnes, the properties of the polymer itself can be optimized a lot more, the researchers said to MIT press.

It isn’t strong enough for use in building material but can function as a filling or coating on surfaces.

The lifespans of chloroplasts, which, by virtue of being biological elements with a shelf-life, are one of the areas of future work for the team. Once the chloroplasts die, they can no longer carry out the reaction that fixes carbon dioxide — a crucial aspect of the material’s intended purpose.

Living chloroplasts inside cells of Plagiomnium affine. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Living chloroplasts inside cells of Plagiomnium affine. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Synthetic that grows, but doesn't reproduce

Undoubtedly, one of its key advantages as a component in construction would be its ability to self-heal. Imagine a building that needs nothing but ambient light and carbon dioxide to fix cracks, wear-and-tear and grow in mass.

The ability of the polymer to grow mimics some aspect of life but without the actual ability to reproduce — something entirely unique in the field of material science, Strano said to MIT press.

“Carbon dioxide need not be purely a burden and a cost,” adds Strano.

“We build the world with carbon. Humans are made of carbon. Making a material that can access the abundant carbon all around us is a significant opportunity for materials science.”

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