Plastic polymers are efficient, cheap and easy to make—but not very environmentally friendly. Hydrogels had previously not been really considered a viable alternative, because they're, well, gels. But by attaching them to clay, that's all changed.
Turns out the water-based (duh) hydrogels had a great affinity for attaching to glass, so researchers tested out its relationship with something fairly similar: Clay. And lo and behold, it sticks! That gives it a bunch of properties that make it a possible alternative to plastics:
This notably improved mechanical properties over other hydrogels, as it could be molded into shapes that are free-standing and relatively robust and would undergo self-healing when cut. Less than 0.4 percent of it is petroleum-derived, so improved versions may provide an appealing green alternative to polymers. The best aspect, however, may be its simplicity: all you need are three ingredients, a beaker of water, and something to stir with.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether these new hydrogels actually take off as a plastic replacement, but it looks like now they might have a fighting chance. [Ars Technica]