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Who hasn't had fun with Silly Putty? The gooey mixture of cornstarch and water that flows like a liquid when handled gently, but turns as hard as a rock, when punched or stomped over. After years of entertaining kids in elementary classrooms, the simple mixture that can magically change its form, is now poised to take on a more serious role - Fix potholes!
The brilliant transformation is the brainchild of a team of undergraduate students from Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, and was initially developed as their entry for an engineering contest that called for creating a unique product, using simple materials.
They began by first seeking out a common global problem that needed to be resolved and came up with one of the most annoying ones - potholes. While these bone-rattling holes can be patched up, the current methods are time consuming, cumbersome and expensive.
Once they identified the problem they wanted to solve, the team went about in search of a solution using simple materials and hit upon the perfect one - Silly Putty. Known as a Non Newtonian fluid because it has the qualities of both liquids and solids, it seemed like the perfect solution especially, since Silly Putty gets increasingly harder under pressure, which in this case would be a constant, because of the cars driving over the pothole.
The reason Silly Putty and other Non Newtonian fluids act in this way is to do with the interaction of its particles. According to scientists when the particles in the cornstarch get pushed around rapidly, which happens when they are punched or run over, they have no time to rearrange and instead, get all over one another and end up forming little clumps or hydro clusters. Once that happens, they are unable to separate again and therefore, remain solid.
In order to be able to get the right consistency of Silly Putty, the students experimented with different size particles of cornstarch until they came up with the perfect formula. They then tested it on the potholes of Cleveland's streets and so far, things look pretty encouraging. Whether the Silly Putty will be able to withstand the harsh Midwest winters, is something that still has to be determined.
The students, who took first place in the competition, have begun to package their powdered mix in a specially designed waterproof bag. All a road repair crew has to do, is add water to the bag, seal it and dump it into a pothole - Silly Putty takes care of the rest!
What's even better is that the product is completely biodegradable and non-toxic, so if the bag leaks, the Silly Putty mix will not damage the environment nor, harm the human handling it. Now all the team needs, is a paying customer!
Resources: newsciencemag.org, gizmag.com