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niversity of Minnesota professor Frank Bates is a materials scientist—he looks at the underlying structure of a material, its properties, how processing changes it, and what the material can do. Specifically, Bates studies and creates new polymers—big molecules made of many smaller molecules linked together into long, repeating chains.
Lots of objects use polymers: from plastic bags and pop bottles to bulletproof vests and artificial joints. DNA and most of the food you eat are made of natural polymers.
By manipulating polymers, scientists can produce materials with the desired mechanical properties, color, transparency, etc.
Think about this: diamond and graphite (like a pencil lead) are two forms of pure carbon. But diamond is hard and clear, while graphite is soft and dark. They contain the same atoms, but they're arranged and bonded together differently. Similarly, scientists can build polymers with the properties they want by assembling the giant molecules in specific ways.
Professor Bates and his students try to improve the epoxies used in floor and steel coatings, stealth aircraft, and automobile parts. (You may have used an epoxy yourself: usually it comes packed in two parts—in aluminum foil or plastic syringes—and you mix it as you use it.) Epoxy cures into a hard but brittle plastic. Bates and his students have discovered that embedding tiny wormlike cylinders, just one millionth of a centimeter wide, in the epoxy can reduce brittle failure dramatically. This image, taken with an electron microscope, shows the tiny rubbery cylinders (black) in the hardened epoxy plastic.