Steel and some other structural materials are subject to corrosion – negative chemical and physical changes under the influence of the environment. All countries combined invest about 3.5% of the world’s annual gross domestic product in corrosion protection, which is about $4,000 billion.
Markus Niederberger and his colleagues have developed a plastic that could greatly improve and simplify corrosion protection. It is called poly(phenylenemethylene), or PPM. It has several form factors: for example, it can be kneaded like paint, heated, and sprayed to coat a surface. After that, it will harden, like ordinary paint.
Moreover, he independently restores any damage without additional intervention from outside. At the end of its life, the polymer can be completely removed and recycled with minimal loss of material, and then applied to another surface without losing its special properties and functions.
The discovery was made by accident. The authors worked on the production of nanoparticles in a special organic solvent. Under certain conditions, the solvent became solid – it polymerized. “It was unintentional and undesirable,” Niederberger recalls. “At first we didn’t know what to do with it.”
But then they discovered that the polymer they accidentally created, then called PPM, had an interesting property in addition to high thermal stability: it fluoresced, although according to conventional knowledge, such materials do not fluoresce. This drew even more attention to PPM, and gradually scientists found out that the material can be made to “overgrow” any violations of its structure.
The authors hope that their discovery will make it possible to protect structural elements from moisture, salt and other corrosive environments in a more environmentally friendly way.