Polymers that mend themselves when heated or pressurized are useful, but the holy grail of polymer durability is self-repair. After all, it’s a bit inconvenient to bake a cracked microprocessor buried in two tons of airplane fuselage, to say nothing of a malfunctioning heart implant.
By using human skin as a model, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed just such a material.
If the skin’s outer protective la
yer is cut, the inner la yer, which is infused with a dense network of tiny blood vessels, rushes nutrients to the cut to help with healing. The self-healing material consists of an epoxy polymer la yer deposited on a substrate that contains a three-dimensional network of microchannels. The epoxy coating contains tiny catalyst particles, while the channels in the substrate are filled with a liquid healing agent.
When the material is bent and cracked, liquid rushes up the channels and into the breach, mixing with the catalyst to re-form the epoxy.
The first-generation polymers can heal themselves seven times, and refinements may boost that number, and even be refilled with consumer-ready catalysts and healing agents.
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