Crushing it

Look: “Super jelly” experiment defies the laws of physics

This is essentially Flubber — but real.

Zehuan Huang

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Hydrogels are fascinating materials, able to stretch without breaking and absorb huge amounts of liquid.

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These unique properties mean hydrogels are used in a diverse array of products, including wound dressings, diapers, and more. But hydrogels do have their limitations.

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Hydrogels are soft and mostly made of water, so while they can hold their shape after being stretched, resisting compression — being squished — is a lot tougher for hydrogels to withstand without bursting.

Zehuan Huang

A new innovation from University of Cambridge researchers may have solved that problem, however. They dub their creation, “super jelly,” a hydrogel that can bounce back into its original shape even after being crushed.

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Super jelly is so strong, the researchers say it would withstand an elephant standing on it — and still snap back into shape.

Zehuan Huang

The researchers describe super jelly in a new paper in the journal Nature Materials. In the paper, the researchers reveal how they tested super jelly’s physics-defying abilities — by running it over with a car.

Zehuan Huang

Despite being 80 percent water, the hydrogel held its shape even after being squashed by the car.

Super jelly resists compression because of its novel polymer structure. Inside the material are barrel-shaped molecules called cucurbiturils, which can hold two other molecules inside them.

The researchers designed molecules that stay inside the cucurbiturils when pressure is applied from the outside, allowing super jelly to keep its structure.

Because of its molecular structure, super jelly acts like shatterproof glass under compression.

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“At 80 percent water content, you’d think it would burst apart like a water balloon, but it doesn’t: it stays intact and withstands huge compressive forces.”

Study author Professor Oren Scherman

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Aside from collecting some very cool video footage, the researchers have also used super jelly to create a damage-proof pressure sensor to monitor movements like walking and jumping.

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Super jelly could also be useful in robotics and bioengineering, as soft, highly compressible materials could be used to make artificial muscles, skin, and cartilage.

“We’re not just writing something new into the textbooks, which is really exciting, but we’re opening a new chapter in the area of high-performance soft materials.”

First author Dr. Zehuan Huang

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