Self-Healing 'Smart Mud' Could Replace Plastic Researchers excited about new substance's potential By Rob Quinn, Newser Staff Posted Jan 21, 2010 5:45 AM CST 9 comments Comments Lead researcher Takuzo Aida of the University of Tokyo, says the newly developed hydrogel has the same strength as silicone rubber. (Takuzo Aida) (Newser) – Japanese researchers have developed a clay-based substance they believe has the potential to become an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic. The team mixed small amounts of clay with water, a thickening agent called sodium polyacrylate, and a specially designed molecular glue, producing a gel strong enough to hold its own weight. The self-healing substance is 50 times stronger than any similar substances, the researchers say. The key to the new material's strength is the thickening agent, which separates the clay into nanosheets, increasing the surface area the glue can adhere to. The substance can be easily mixed by anybody who has the ingredients and sets in just 3 minutes. It is ideal for medical uses, the researchers say, and stronger versions with a higher clay content could replace plastic for most uses. The team's work adds to "a growing field of materials with exceptional properties that really could not be imagined,” a chemical engineer tells Science Daily.