Scientists create ‘self-healing’ plastic

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a ‘self-healing’ plastic that could one day allow objects from cracked mobile phone screens to meteor-battered space probes to automatically repair themselves

Inspired by the clotting properties of human blood, the newly designed material is laced with tiny channels, like blood vessels, which carry liquefied chemicals to damaged areas. When the fluids mix, they create a ‘scab’ that holds the chemicals in place as they ooze throughout the damaged area before gradually hardening. That allows the new plastic to automatically plug holes of up to 8mm in diameter – a vast improvement on existing self-healing materials, which can patch only the very tiniest of cracks.

The breakthrough shows the benefits of ‘biomimicry’, with scientists learning from the “repair-by-regrowth” strategies used by living creatures, researchers say.

“Although self-healing of microscopic defects has been demonstrated, the re-growth of material lost through catastrophic damage requires a regenerative-like approach,” research team leader Scott White told reporters.

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The vascularised plastics are slightly weaker than untreated materials, the researchers reported in the journal Science, but their self-healing properties are likely to make them valuable in a wide range of consumer and industrial applications.

Scientists envision bullet-holes sealing over without a trace, planes automatically conducting repairs in mid-flight, and damaged deep-ocean machinery restoring itself without the intervention of human engineers. For now, scientists are working to improve their discovery by developing foaming agents that could harden more quickly and fill larger spaces.

“For the first time, we’ve shown that you can regenerate lost material in a structural polymer,” said White.