Nicholas Boynton demonstrates how the new pluripotent plastic can take on different characteristics (Credit: John Zich/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

What if you could transform the plastic spoon you used at lunch into a cup for your water and then change it back to a spoon? That is precisely what researchers at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering had in mind when they created "pluripotent plastic."

"Rather than taking all the different plastics with you, you take this one plastic with you and then just give it the properties you need as you require," Professor Stuart Rowan told The New York Times.

The magical material is made using polymers that can be modified by tempering. The technique is often used in metalwork. It requires heating the metal to a specific temperature and then chilling it.

The researchers found that heating the plastic to temperatures between 140 and 230 degrees Fahrenheit (60 and 110 degrees Celsius) and then rapidly freezing it allowed them to create different objects in no time. To test the plastic, they first molded it into a spoon strong enough to scoop up peanut butter. The spoon was then transformed into a fork to pick up cheese. After that, the fork was converted into an adhesive, which then became a small claw to pick up objects.

Pluripotent plastic can be reused multiple times to make different items (Credit: CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The team, led by graduate student Nicholas Boynton, published their study in the journal Science on February 1, 2024. The current version of the plastic does have some limitations. Its shape-shifting ability stops working after seven times. The plastic holds its shape for at least a month, But the engineers are unsure how long it remains suitable for reuse. However, they assert that once ready, it would be extremely useful, both on Earth and in space.

"If you're going to live on the moon or Mars, you can't take a bunch of materials with you, and you don't have Amazon Prime shipping, so it'd be great if you have this one material that you can turn into a bunch of different stuff," said Boynton.

More importantly, it could help reduce the amount of single-use plastics that end up in our landfills every day. Also, current plastics have varying molecular structures that are permanently bonded. As a result, plastic items have to be carefully sorted before recycling. If pluripotent plastic becomes the universal standard, all items could be processed together. This would make recycling a lot easier and more efficient.