Editorial Feature

Plastics that are Stronger than Steel

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Materials scientists are constantly working on developing stronger and better materials for various industries. Spider silk, diamond, graphene, and nanotubes have all been proved to be stronger than steel in one respect or another. Now, certain types of plastics join this list.

The following article looks at three research findings in the field of plastics.

Flower Power

Disclaimer: This section relates to information that was part of April Fools 2014.

Koenraad Van Tonder, a researcher at Delft University of Technology, made a crucial breakthrough when he discovered that a certain type of tulip (Tulipa fortis) had extraordinary strength, such that even stomping on the flower resulted in little damage.

Van Tonder took his observations to the lab, where he and his team worked on deciphering the distinct cellular arrangement they found in the leaves. Van Tonder and his team discovered a unique pattern within the leaves cellular structure along with two new types of phytochemicals which they predicted were behind the Tulips strength.

Armed with this new-found knowledge, Van Tonder and his team dried the leaves and pulverized them before adding hydrochloric acid to the powder. This mixture was placed under immense heat and pressure to obtain the desired formation of polymers.

We found we could extrude the tulip polymer matrix into long chains, which could then be woven into cables. We are testing the cables now, but the results have been shocking. This is strong stuff.

Koenraad Van Tonder

On testing the tulip plastic cables, the team was amazed at the material's strength. Using a 1/4" diameter woven tulip cable hooked up to a rig, the material was able to lift a grand piano. They also tied two cables with a slip knot to Van Tonder's car and were able to tow it across the student car park and over to the mechanics workshop.

The battery in my Yugo had died and I couldn’t afford to have it towed, but since we’ve discovered this amazing new material, I’m thinking of upgrading to a Fiat.

Koenraad Van Tonder

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Research is still ongoing, however, Van Tonder and his team's results indicate that the plastic is extremely stable, fire-resistant, and it does not deform when subjected to dramatic temperature changes.

The plastic is stronger and lighter than steel allowing it to be processed into complex forms.

Van Tonder and his team predict this material will revolutionize the construction industry.

Hemp Plastics

Plastics developed from organic materials have been researched for many years now. In 1941, Henry Ford used industrial hemp plastic to construct a car. The material is at least 2.5 times stronger than steel. This was demonstrated when Ford took a sledge hammer to the hemp-plastic panels.

He believed that the plastic mixed with hemp fibers could save lives in an accident. In addition to this, recent research shows that the material is completely biodegradable.

Currently, hemp plastics are starting to be integrated into our daily lives, with large automobile companies such as Ford, BMW and Mercedes using the strong plastic to make dashboards and sometimes door panels.

Developing Transparent Materials

For years transparent aluminum has been a material of Sci-Fi movies however; researchers at the University of Michigan may have brought it one step closer to becoming a reality.  

Scientist started by taking extremely strong nanostructures, like nanotubes, nanorods and nanosheets found on a micro level, and then built something bigger and usable with it. They soon discovered that the strength from the nanostructures was not carrying over into the larger materials. The resulting product always appeared flimsy in comparison to the strength shown at the nanoscale.

However, scientists appear to overcome that hurdle with what they’re calling “the Velcro effect”.

The new polymer and glue they have created sets up a series of hydrogen bonds between the layers which, if broken, are simply reconnected to nearby locations.

To reach this goal, the scientists began by investigating one of the strongest natural minerals known to man, pearl. Looking at its molecular structure, they discovered what’s significant within its multi-layer construction. They then incorporated this new-found knowledge into a unique plastic material that is lighter and stronger than steel but also demonstrates transparent properties.  

Image Credit: Thinkstock

To create this amazing material, researchers developed a custom-built machine fitted with a large diameter wheel. The wheel contained several nanosheets, each with a different clay-composite material. A small piece of extremely thin glass begins the process by holding the glue dip. The wheel is programmed to turned repeatedly and dip the clay-composite material into the glue. Each glue-coated material is then allowed to cure before continuing.

At the start of the process, each layer begins with a negatively charged material. When dipped in the glue and washed with water, it becomes positively charged, thereby allowing it to attract the next layer for bonding. This process is performed 300 times, resulting in the breakthrough plastic material that is stronger and lighter than steel even at macro scales.


The advancements in technology have always been influenced by the development of new materials. These new plastics help open the door for new possibilities in the future and support further development in materials science.

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on 23rd October, 2018.

Stuart Milne

Written by

Stuart Milne

Stuart graduated from the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff with a first-class honours degree in Industrial Product Design. After working on a start-up company involved in LED Lighting solutions, Stuart decided to take an opportunity with AZoNetwork. Over the past five years at AZoNetwork, Stuart has been involved in developing an industry leading range of products, enhancing client experience and improving internal systems designed to deliver significant value for clients hard earned marketing dollars. In his spare time Stuart likes to continue his love for art and design by creating art work and continuing his love for sketching. In the future Stuart, would like to continue his love for travel and explore new and exciting places.


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