Chemists at the University of California, Riverside have developed a new material which is capable of self-healing and stretching up to 50 times its own size. The material was able to heal itself after being cut up into two pieces. It repaired itself over the course of 24 hours.
Dr. Chao Wang, the lead chemist behind the material, says that his inspiration for the material was Wolverine from the Marvel Universe, a childhood favourite of his. Just like Wolverine, Wang’s material was able to heal itself even when torn into two pieces “like nothing happened”, in his words.
How does it work?
Dr. Wang explains that there are two types of bonds – covalent and noncovalent bonds. Covalent bonds are much stronger than noncovalent bonds and can’t repair themselves as easily when broken. Noncovalent bonds, on the other hand, are dynamic – like water for instance, where hydrogen bonds are continually breaking and reforming.
The new material has a special type of non-covalent bond that hasn’t been used in self-healing materials before. The bond is called an ion-dipole interaction (an ion-dipole interaction occurs between a fully charged ion and a partially charged dipole). It generates a current when exposed to electrical signals which create chemical bonding reactions between the molecules. To put it in simpler terms, whenever the material gets scratches or breaks, the ions and molecules attract each other to fix or heal the material.
Another advantage of this kind of bond is that it’s able to conduct electricity, which is not possible in other self-healing polymers. This alone opens up a lot of applications and uses for the material in electronics.
What will it be used for?
Since the new material is able to conduct electricity, one of the primary applications proposed by Dr. Wang is for self-healing displays. You might not have to worry about your phone screen shattering or getting scratches in the near future thanks to this material. Dr. Wang also says that self-healing lithium ion batteries are also a possibility.
This isn’t the first instance of “self-healing” tech we’ve seen. The LG G Flex back in 2013 also boasted self-healing with its hydrogen-infused rear cover. However, it couldn’t conduct electricity, so it couldn’t heal displays, and it was also capable of fixing only minor scratches.
The new material present by Dr. Wang at the American Chemical Society, on the other hand, does conduct electricity. So it will work with display screens!
Another application for the material in the foreseeable future is for self-healing robots, capable of self-repair or fixing themselves. Perhaps a scary thought to some…
Dr. Wang’s team admits that water messes with the mechanical properties of the material, and they’re working on finding new ways to make the material more resilient in humid environments. Wang expects the new material to be used in smartphones and possibly even batteries by 2020.