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A versatile material that beats the best



ROMA – With this material, developed at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) by one Setlhare Jane, you can replace ceramics with ceramic-like spectacles, plastics with plastic-like wonders and organic paints with paint-like marvels.
“When I realised that I could actually replace liquid plastics with this simple and low cost material, I and my supervisor knew something huge was unfolding,” Setlhare Jane, a Research Assistant at the NUL says.

But a further surprise was in store. The material is so versatile.
“In some applications, it behaves like clay used in pottery, in some, it behaves like organic paint, thus it can also replace both,” he said.
But what is this material?

“It is a material made from a variety of silicate based compounds which we modify with selected polymers,” Jane says.
“I discovered this material, almost accidentally, after a lot of frustration working with liquid plastics that have proved to be very expensive and a bit complicated.”

Silicates are products of an element called silicon, often surrounded by a number of oxygen atoms. They come in numerous forms and form part of most common material on the earth’s crust.
By their nature, silicate-based materials can be strong but brittle at the same time.

“By modifying them with the right kind of polymers, we were able to induce an enviable quality of toughness.”
In toughness, you combine strength and ductility. Let us explain.
If you take a ceramic tile and try to break it with your hands, it doesn’t break at all. In fact, if you try harder, you might actually twist your own hands. That is because it is strong. But something amazing happens when you drop the ceramic.

Oops! It breaks quite easily!
That is because it is not tough! You see, in the field of engineering, strong and tough ain’t no equal.
“Let’s pick another extreme example but on the opposite end,” Jane says.
This time we pick a shopping plastic bag. You throw it down and it doesn’t break.
But, next, something spectacular happens. You pull it aside and it comes apart so easily. It is soft and ductile.
But, it is not tough! Ductility and toughness ain’t no equal either.

Now, “consider the middle ground and pick a metal; iron for instance,” he says.
Try to pull it with your hands and it resists. Try to throw it down and it doesn’t break.
This is what we call toughness, metals are tough and toughness is ductility and strength in one package.
“Toughness is where our product kills it,” a beaming Jane said.

“Made from both silicates and polymers, our product combines the strength of silicates with the ductility of polymers to create the toughness of bones—not exactly bones, but, of course, something in that neighborhood.”

In fact, tests made at the NUL show that polymers increase the toughness of silicates by a staggering 60 percent.
The result is a material that is more or less like a bone. Of course your bone is extremely ingenious material; humans have had a hard time mimicking it. It is neither just a ceramic, nor is it just a plastic nor just a metal—it is neither of those because it is all of them!
So how can you use this material?

“When used in combination with waste paper, we are using it to make vases, that will make you laugh at the cost of ceramic vases,” Jane says.
“It has technical properties that are enough in most vase applications, but you can now make your vase with a tenth of the cost of making similar ceramic vases.”

And then comes liquid plastics.
Many are not aware but a huge number of products we use daily are made from liquid plastics which, once they set, can never soften.
But their problem according to Jane is, “they are expensive and normally produce unwelcome fumes.”
The NUL scientists have shown that the material can safely replace these plastics in a number of applications, especially room temperature molded plastic products.

But the real strength of this material is in its versatility. For instance, it excels as paint.
“We have tested its potential as paint for more than one and half years and the way it bonds to surfaces, not to say a thing about its no-shiny textured surface have caught us by surprise,” Jane says.

Those who have seen this material believe Mr Jane is just scratching the surface on its applications. Its simplicity and low cost gives it a decisive advantage over its competitors.
“You can make anything out of this material,” one analyst says.

Own Correspondent

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