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Chemists make tough plastics recyclable

Thermosets, which include epoxies, polyurethanes, and rubber used for tires, are found in many products that have to be durable and heat-resistant, such as cars or electrical appliances. One drawback to these materials is that they typically cannot be easily recycled or broken down after use, because the chemical bonds holding them together are stronger than those found in other materials such as thermoplastics.

MIT chemists have now developed a way to modify thermoset plastics with a chemical linker that makes the materials much easier to break down, but still allows them to retain the mechanical strength that makes them so useful.

In a study appearing today in Nature, the researchers showed that they could produce a degradable version of a thermoset plastic called pDCPD, break it down into a powder, and use the powder to create more pDCPD. They also proposed a theoretical model suggesting that their approach could be applicable to a wide range of plastics and other polymers, such as rubber.

"This work unveils a fundamental design principle that we believe is general to any kind of thermoset with this basic architecture," says Jeremiah Johnson, an professor of chemistry at MIT and the senior author of the study.

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