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Inspired by living things from trees to shellfish, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin set out to create a plastic much like many life forms that are hard and rigid in some places and soft and stretchy in others. Their success—a first, using only light and a catalyst to change properties such as hardness and elasticity in molecules of the same type—has brought about a new material that is 10 times as tough as natural rubber and could lead to more flexible electronics and robotics.

The findings are published today in the journal Science.

"This is the first material of its type," said Zachariah Page, assistant professor of chemistry and corresponding author on the paper. "The ability to control crystallization, and therefore the physical properties of the material, with the application of light is potentially transformative for wearable electronics or actuators in ."

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