Self-healing plastic developed in uni lab

Published: 09 Jun 2014

Researchers at the University of Illinois laboratory are testing materials that self-heal and regenerate.

Self-repairing materials aren’t a new phenomenon. The discovery made at the University of Illinois has gone one step further than the established standard of self-repairing microscopic cracks. The new regenerating miracle materials can go so far as refilling large cracks, holes and other imperfections by simply re-growing matter to fill the gap.

The research team is led by Professor Scott White, who recently announced their work in the May issue of Science journal.

"We have demonstrated repair of a non-living, synthetic materials system in a way that is reminiscent of repair-by-regrowth as seen in some living systems," said Moore, a professor of chemistry.

The ramifications for self-repairing materials are obvious. Whether you accidentally smash your LED TV in an overzealous Wii tennis match, or you crash your car bumper head first into a lamppost, you could potentially be living in a world where that damage will one day repair itself within minutes. Thinking beyond consumer goods, imagine the possibility of aerospace applications. A space shuttle that can fly on indefinitely, repairing itself against the damage of interstellar travel suddenly seems like an exciting possibility.

This is the latest iteration of the team’s work on vascular materials, and special fibres that disintegrate and can then be reformed, mimicking biological shapes, such as circulatory systems.

"Vascular delivery lets us deliver a large volume of healing agents - which, in turn, enables restoration of large damage zones," said Sottos, a professor of materials science and engineering. "The vascular approach also enables multiple restorations if the material is damaged more than once."

The two adjoining, parallel capillaries are filled with regenerative chemicals, which are set to flow when damage happens. Once these chemical liquids mix, they form a gel, which fills the section of damage. Once this gel sets, it forms a strong polymer, which restores the strength of the plastic.

"We have to battle a lot of extrinsic factors for regeneration, including gravity," said study leader, White, a professor of aerospace engineering. "The reactive liquids we use form a gel fairly quickly, so that as it’s released it starts to harden immediately. If it didn't, the liquids would just pour out of the damaged area and you'd essentially bleed out. Because it forms a gel, it supports and retains the fluids. Since it's not a structural material yet, we can continue the regrowth process by pumping more fluid into the hole.”

"For the first time, we've shown that you can regenerate lost material in a structural polymer. That's the kicker here," White said. "Prior to this work, if you cut off a piece of material, it's gone. Now we've shown that the material can actually regrow."


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