Materials Science

Jordan sneakers and polymer chemistry

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What does IBM Research have to do with … Jordan Sneakers?

Basketball great Michael Jordan created a legacy brand, some would say a cultural phenomenon, with his sneaker line — which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Since 1985, he has released a newly designed “Jordan” basketball shoe, typically referred to by a roman numeral for every successive year and is considered the staple for any shoe collector. In 2016, Michael Jordan released the Jordan XXX. And every version’s main ingredient has been polymers.

Sustainable Tennis Shoes

IBM’s work in polymers draws an interesting connection to sneakers. The polymers that make up the typical shoe — as well as those in car tires, everyday home goods, plastic water bottles, medical products and bicycles — have been an area of study for researchers for decades. These materials were historically explored at IBM for purposes of semiconductor packaging. It turns out these types of thermosets cannot be recycled — they are instead melted down and re-purposed for another use. Not that anyone would want to melt their Jordans!

Gavin Jones, IBM Research

Gavin Jones is a computational chemist at IBM Research, studying novel polymer materials

Dr. Gavin Jones, a computational chemist from Jamaica with a Ph.D. in Computational/Theoretical Organic Chemistry from UCLA, spends time in the Almaden lab looking at polymers such as these, and investigates through molecular modeling, the mechanisms of their formation and degradation at the angstrom scale – about 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. He recently provided a computational model accurately predicting that these materials could be decomposed in water (or acid for the strongest materials) back to their starting form. The resulting polymer was the first ever fully recyclable plastic, loaded with so many strongly faceted bonds, that in its developed phase is stronger than bone.

Relating that to sneakers, Dr. Jones estimates that the amount of polymers used to construct sneakers could be as high as 90 percent. On the other hand, sneakers, with the upper part made of leather, will use around 50 percent polymers, especially to construct soles that are almost always made from plastics.

Dr. Jones is also developing new recycling methods for polymers. Just this week, he published a new study on a method he discovered to recycle old smartphones and CDs into plastics safe enough for medical devices and water filtration. Read more about his new study here.

“I have always deeply appreciated the sciences and the foundational logic of chemistry appealed to me,” says Dr. Jones. “IBM Research instantly appealed to me as an institution in which I could perform really important research that could someday have an enormous positive impact on our society.”

The implications of Dr. Jones’ team’s work could mean several things far beyond your next shoe shopping trip: for example, faster, lighter weight, and degradable airplane parts; decreased waste in our landfills; and hopefully, invigorate a renewed love for plastic within our society. With science like this behind the future of materials, we can embrace new classes of materials that our environment (and our feet!) will thank us for.

More about Gavin & other polymer chemists at IBM Research-Almaden

Contact Gavin Jones on LinkedIn.

This post is part of a series recognizing unique IBM Research projects and their unexpected ties to pop culture, with “30” or “1986” being the common thread. The series will run once a week, celebrating the 30th anniversary of IBM Research – Almaden in San Jose, CA.

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