New Self-Healing Polymer in Development

An Asian man running tests in a laboratory.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Self-healing materials have long been something of a Holy Grail for chemists. For those unfamiliar with the term, self-healing materials are materials that, if say broken into two, can rejoin.

It may sound unrealistic, but that’s how our skin works. The trick is figuring out how to do that with artificial matter.

Believe it or not, self-healing materials have been in the works for a while now. Unfortunately, there are a few kinks that developers need to work out before this kind of technology can be brought to market. Humidity, for example, wreaks havoc on such materials since water gets into them and changes the chemical properties. A self-healing material isn’t all that useful if it only works in the desert.

But according to Dr. Chao Wang, who has been working on self-healing materials for a while now, things are looking brighter. He’s developed a material that is capable of self-healing and can conduct ions in order to generate current. It’s even stretchable, so it has a lot of potential uses, like in smart phones or soft robotics. He says he was inspired by Marvel’s Wolverine, known for his “healing factor” which makes him nearly un-killable.

And although the material doesn’t stand up to humidity (not yet anyway) that’s the next goal on Wang’s list. Wang plans to fix the problem by “tweaking the covalent bonds within the polymer itself.” Once he has that figured out, the polymer will be that much closer to being usable in a variety of real-world applications.

Wang uses the example of a smartphone which can repair itself after being dropped. Since the material in question is transparent, this would make for an ideal use. Of course, there are no doubt countless uses for such a material, in manufacturing or in consumer products, which could no doubt help us reduce waste with longer-lasting products.

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