"This gives us the ability to understand and control how glassy polymers – plastics – behave right at their surface," said corresponding author David Simmons, associate professor of chemical, biological and materials engineering at USF. "Whether it’s a particle of dust sticking to paint, two fibers sticking together in a 3D printer, or abrasion at the surface of a pair of a plastic lens in your glasses, this microscopic layer at the surface of plastics is immensely important to how these materials perform, and now we really understand its nature for the first time."
Simmons and his collaborators made this discovery by forming "wetting ridges," tiny ridges at the surface of a plastic, by releasing an ionic liquid droplet on polystyrene surfaces at various temperatures. Polystyrene is a solid plastic, a type of glass, that’s naturally clear and often used for food packaging, consumer products and building materials. Through these measurements and by zooming in to the molecular scale with supercomputer simulation models, they revealed the presence of this soft, rubbery layer and how it can be controlled. This breakthrough could point to finding the "sweet spot" for important properties such as adhesion and scratch resistance, even on rigid surfaces.
The theory is similar to the modern understanding of what makes ice skating possible. The top molecular layer of the rink acts like water, even when the rink is frozen, allowing skates to glide over the surface. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible.