How smart polymers are healing patients and the planet

New classes of polymers don’t come along very often, so it was kind of a big deal when Ludwik Leibler and his team at the Laboratoire Matière Molle et Chimie at ESPCI ParisTech created vitrimers. By combining the properties of two different classes of materials, they invented a self-healing polymer that can switch from a solid to a pliable state simply by a temperature change. The ramifications are profound, including the capability to heal patients and, to some extent, the planet. The impact of vitrimers on myriad applications is one of the topics that Helen Lentzakis, PhD, will discuss during a Center Stage presentation—Get Smart with Smart Materials—at Expoplast, which comes to Montréal, QC, Canada, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

Lentzakis is currently an application specialist at Group NanoXplore Inc. (Saint Laurent, QC), the largest Canadian producer of graphene, but she has special insights into vitrimers, as she pursued her post-graduate degree at ESPCI ParisTech, where the material was invented. “The work conducted by Leibler and his team received the European Inventor Award in the research category in 2015,” she notes. “The material combines the properties of thermoplastics and thermosets. The bond exchange reactions allow you to rearrange the material’s topology while the bonds remain essentially unchanged. It’s a thermoset network, and therefore has strong mechanical properties, but it can be recycled when processed at higher temperatures, when the bond exchange reactions are active,” explains Lentzakis.

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The medical applications of the material, according to the researchers, include water-based nano gels that can “bridge” biological tissues. For example, vitrimers could bind together the sides of open wounds by serving as a type of organ glue in surgical procedures where stitches are unsuitable. The material also has environmental benefits.

Vitrimer
Described by its inventor as a "new class of polymer," vitrimer combines the properties of thermoplastics and thermosets.

The self-healing polymer has the potential to reduce plastic waste by prolonging the useful life of plastic-based products. The European Patent Office (EPO), which produces the European Inventor Awards program, cited the example of surfboards in its profile of Leibler. “Once set into a mold, conventional epoxy cannot be melted or dissolved. This rules out recycling, sending thousands of broken surf boards to landfills each year,” writes the EPO. “Meanwhile, current production of new surfboards, estimated at 750,000 per year, creates around 220,000 tons of CO 2. A ‘self-healing’ surfboard from vitrimer-infused epoxy could reduce production volumes by extending the life cycle of existing equipment significantly.”

"Terminator" polymer repairs itself

During her presentation, Lentzakis also will discuss the so-called “Terminator” polymer developed by scientists at the Centre for Electrochemical Technologies (CIDETEC) in San Sebastian, Spain. Considered to be the first self-healing polymer that can repair itself without human intervention, the thermoset elastomer “undergoes exchange reactions active at room temperature,” explains Lentzakis, who collaborated with

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