The invention of plastics in the mid-1800s changed human civilization as profoundly as our earlier mastery of fire, bronze, and steel. Unfortunately, the environmental and health effects of plastic offer a significant downside to such a useful and affordable material. Now, scientists at the University of Tokyo, Japan, have developed a clay-based hydrogel that they hope will perform the same functions as plastic, but do so without endangering people or the planet.
Scientists have been using hydrogels in medical technology since the 1980s, but their lack of rigidity and durability limited their use. But by adding a small amount of clay to the mixture, the researchers succeeding in imbuing the hydrogels with the stiffness needed to make the material more versatile.
The clay enhances the hydrogel because the polymer used to bind the water into a gel simultaneously adheres to the clay, the water, and other polymer chains. By grabbing all the elements, the polymer forms a rigid scaffolding that supports the other molecules, and creates solid material. Plus, because the material is mostly water and clay, with only a little bit of polymer, the material has none of the toxic qualities of plastic.
In their paper in Nature describing the new material, the University of Tokyo researchers fail to address the cost of this new hydrogel. One of the key advantages of plastic is the low cost, and no material can be considered a viable replacement for plastic until someone can manufacture it just as cheaply.