Imagine if paints, plastics, or even coatings like the ones which protect our cell phone screens were able to heal the way human skin does whenever they suffered damage. That’s what researchers at Clemson University have been working toward — and their solution is almost ready for mass-manufacturing prime time.
Although the technology sounds futuristic, self-healing polymers aren’t actually all that new. Materials scientists have been making them for the past couple of decades, although this has always been in very small batches, since production on a commercial scale has been too expensive. The approach favored by the Clemson scientists is different. What makes their work so exciting, and so potentially promising for commercialization, is that it involves giving self-healing abilities to polymers that are already in wide use in low-cost products. That in turn means it wouldn’t be necessary for manufacturers to invest in new equipment or, potentially, even entire new factories.
Their breakthrough co-polymer material possesses its awesome self-healing skill because of the way that it can fit together with other pieces of the same material, a bit like aligning two bead necklaces so that the beads from one fill any spaces available in the neighboring string.
“We sometimes refer to this as interdigitated topology,” Marek Urban, a professor in Clemson’s department of materials science and engineering, told Digital Trends. “It turns out that due to their chemical nature, these beads ‘like’ each other as a result of favorable forces called Van der Waals interactions. As individual chains are separated by mechanical damage, they come together, resulting in self-healing.”
Urban described the potential application for this research as incredibly vast. “The sky is the limit,” he said. “At present, we are in the process of designing new copolymers with different properties for different applications.” As for how quickly this could be turned into a commercial product, Urban estimated that increasing the scale to make polymers or paints in the region of hundreds of gallons could be carried out in the next six months to one year.
“In terms of commercialization, the technology is available, and if there are industrial partners interested in pursuing these efforts they are welcome to contact our Clemson University Tech Transfer offices,” he said.
A paper describing the work, titled “Key-and-lock commodity self-healing co-polymers,” was recently published in the journal Science.