A new class of materials known as “glassy gels” could find use in areas ranging from batteries to adhesives, thanks to their unique set of physical properties.

Meixiang Wang, a post-doctoral fellow from Michael Dickey’s group at North Carolina State University, discovered these new materials while trying out different mixtures for making gels that she hoped would be useful ionic conductors.

Standard gels, such as those used to make contact lenses, are polymers with an added liquid solvent. The liquid weakens the interactions between the chains of molecules forming the polymer, allowing the gel to extend easily but leaving it soft and weak mechanically. In contrast, glassy polymers, like those suitable for airplane windows, contain no liquid and have strong interactions between their constituent polymer chains. This renders them stiff and strong but, in some cases, brittle.

Glassy gels, made by adding liquid solvent to glassy polymers, combine these properties: offering the high stiffness and high strength of glassy polymers alongside high extensibility – they can be stretched to over five times their original length without breaking.

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