Your Next New Gadget Could Be Stronger Than Steel

And super light, too!

Key Takeaways

  • A new, ultra-tough material could transform laptops and other personal electronics. 
  • The material called 2DPA-1 is so strong it might even be able to support a building. 
  • Other new materials could create sensors that let our phones know more about our surrounding environment.
Someone sitting on a rooftop in the city after dark, using a laptop computer.

kiszon pascal / Getty Images

Laptops and other gadgets could soon be a lot lighter and stronger. 

MIT researchers have created a new material as light as plastic and as strong as steel. The material, called 2DPA-1, is a type of polyaramide that can be manufactured at an industrial scale. It's the latest in a wave of innovative materials that could transform personal electronics. 

"There are a lot of problems being solved by new materials," Terry Gilton, a materials expert who is a partner at the tech venture capital firm Celesta Capital, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Imagine displays small enough to fit in a pair of sunglasses that will be able to show you anything you can currently see on your phone display."


MIT's new material is a two-dimensional polymer that self-assembles into sheets, unlike all other polymers, which form one-dimensional, spaghetti-like chains. Scientists believed it was impossible to induce polymers to form 2D sheets until now.

Such a material could be used as a lightweight, durable coating for car parts or cell phones, or as a building material for bridges or other structures, said Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT and the senior author of the new study.

An example of the polyaramide created by MIT researchers.
An example of the polyaramide created by MIT researchers.


"We don't usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building, but with this material, you can enable new things," he said in the news release. 

The researchers found that the new material's elastic modulus—a measure of how much force it takes to deform a material—is between four and six times greater than that of bulletproof glass. They also found that its yield strength, or how much force it takes to break the material, is twice that of steel, even though the material has only about one-sixth the density of steel.

In the press release, Matthew Tirrell, dean of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study, said the new technique "embodies some very creative chemistry to make these bonded 2D polymers."

Another key feature of 2DPA-1 is that it is impermeable to gasses. While other polymers are made from coiled chains with gaps that allow gasses to seep through, the new material is made from monomers that lock together like LEGOs, and molecules cannot get between them.

"This could allow us to create ultrathin coatings that can completely prevent water or gasses from getting through," Strano said. "This kind of barrier coating could be used to protect metal in cars and other vehicles, or steel structures."

"We don't usually think of plastics as being something that you could use to support a building..."

New Materials

The MIT discovery is only one of many materials that may soon be available to improve gadgets. For example, new nanoparticle versions of various metals like titanium will make 3D printing of metallic components faster and cheaper, Gilton said. This 'additive manufacturing' using metals is revolutionizing manufacturing.

New display technologies like quantum dots could replace current materials that are used for monitors and screens, Gilton pointed out. "They are better at filtering light and display better colors based on new compounds," he added. 

Other innovative materials could create sensors that let our phones know more about our surrounding environment, Gilton said. For example, unique polymers that change when they absorb certain gasses allow the practical creation of an electronic 'nose' on a chip.

Companies are researching new techniques for building materials that will enable chips to be constructed with atomic precision, Casper van Oosten, managing director and head of the business field for Intermolecular, a business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, told Lifewire via email. The materials are built atom-by-atom to potentially make cheaper, faster, and more energy-efficient computer chips. 

"The consumers will see this back in the explosion of 'smart' or 'Intelligent' devices around us, from self-driving cars to AR/VR glasses replacing our regular Zoom calls," he said.

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