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I am always on the lookout for cool cutting-edge chemistry for my Make: Projects series. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally there’s a breakthrough that’s both interesting and important, and yet easy enough that even non-professionals can replicate it in their kitchens. It’s one of my dreams to someday present a home chemistry project based on science just published, within the preceding week, in one of the major journals.


This, unfortunately, isn’t it. But it’s dang close.

You’re looking at a piece of hydrogel. It is 98% water by weight. It’s moldable, transparent, environmentally friendly, easily synthesized and (get this) if it’s cut it will heal itself. Its creator, Takuzo Aida at the University of Tokyo, has compared it to silicone rubber in terms of strength. And to make it, all you have to do is stir three ingredients into a bunch of water at room temperature. These are sodium polyacrylate, clay, and a special dendritic molecule Aida and co-workers call “G3 binder.”

It’s that last ingredient that gums it up, if you’ll pardon the expression, for home enthusiasts. Unlike the other ingredients, you can’t just order a bottle of Aida’s G3 dendrimer off the web and play along at home. And, per the supporting information for Aida’s recent Nature paper, the synthesis of G3 is actually pretty hairy.

Too bad. Maybe next time. Still, it’s awesome chemistry.

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

  • Silverman

    From the article: “‘Anyone – even my wife – can prepare our material by just mixing the necessary components in water at room temperature,’ says Aida.”

    What an asshole.

    • Jim McCorison

      Why is that people can’t correct other people without insulting or denigrating them? You could just as easily have left off your last sentence. Instead, you taunt and insult. What has happened to meaningful discourse?

      How about this as an approach:

      “In he linked article it says “‘Anyone – even my wife – can prepare our material by just mixing the necessary components in water at room temperature,’ says Aida.” Did you miss that statement, or have you found other statements which contradict it?”

      In this manner you invite a discussion where you might learn something, or have the opportunity to educate somebody else. Either of these events would be far more rewarding than name calling.

      • Anonymous

        I think he meant the researcher is a douche for suggesting that his wife is capable of little more than mixing three ingredients. A classic socially inept scientist faux pas that I actually thought was funny.

      • Silverman

        Anonymous below is right. Jim missed the point. Aida is an ass for putting down his wife in an interview. There is no benign interpretation of Aida’s comment. I’ll soon go to work in academe and I won’t be able to keep my mouth shut if I hear a colleague say something like this.

        Sean did a great job of describing how it’s not the mixing, but the making of the ingredients, that keeps this experiment out of the realm of kitchen-counter science.

        • Anonymous

          There was no point made for Jim to miss. Making a point requires some level of explanation.

          Instead, you missed Jim’s point.

          Good luck with the whole not being able to keep your mouth shut thing.

    • Sean Michael Ragan

      Although I would stop short of scatological epithets, I agree that the wife comment is in poor taste. Presumably he’s trying to say that one need not be an experienced synthetic chemist with lots of equipment to make the stuff. But saying “anyone” is enough to make that point. Tautologically, his wife is included in “anyone,” and so it’s like he’s singling her out as particularly incompetent.

  • Matt

    Hydrogels can be made from a number of different chemical starting points. They are mostly very easy to make, so if you’re interested, I would suggest looking at options for other materials you can use.

    Not as useful, but perhaps more interesting is a variation called superporous hydrogels. Basically that is a hydrogel full of bubbles and channels for water to enter quickly. Stick it in water and it swells to huge dimensions.

  • Alexander

    Hi Sean, in your article you mention that you want to highlight home chemistry experiments based on current literature. You could definitely do this! Just use some substitutions. For this article, you could illustrate the same principles with agar (or even jello!). Not as exciting I know, but it could help to build the groundwork for future experiments. For instance you could use agar for this experiment illustrating gel-solids. Let’s say you find an article about aerogel really cool a few weeks down the line. Aerogel is also hard to make at home, however you can make SEAgel out of agar to show the same principles and use the earlier column about agar as a lead-up. SEAgel is agar gel without the liquid. Good luck!

  • John

    Is this the samy hydrogel that contact lenses are made of?

  • Charlie

    What about aerogel? Is that easy to make??

    • mm

      I don’t think aerogels are easy to make, else they would be used more for solutions like domestic/commercial insulation. I seem to remember a tiny bit of silca areogel costs loads.

  • Anonymous

    i wonder if it can be used as implants to make some awesome firm non toxic boobies.

  • John

    If that were true, can you please explain US foreign policy, the politics of the catholic church and about 200,000 other ways people like to interfere in each other’s lives? In 100 words or least please.

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