Tech Trends for 2016: Self-healing materials
No longer the stuff of fiction, researchers are looking into smart materials that can be used to repair damaged smartphones and even create artificial skin
The prospect of self-healing materials might seems like something from the far distant future but an increasing number of researchers are taking the possibility seriously by prototyping a raft of new self-healing material innovations.
From infrastructure to smartphones, chipped nail varnish and even skin, the opportunities for these self-healing ‘smart’ materials are just beginning to be realised. In June of this year, a team at the University of Bristol revealed they had invented airplane wings that could repair themselves mid-air, while researchers at Queen Mary University of London are creating self-healing protein scaffolds for growing tissue.
L’Oreal recently announced that it is looking to develop a self-healing nail polish and over in the Netherlands, TU Delft scientists have begun to create bio-concrete that heals itself using bacteria.
This month, tech giant Apple issued a new patent application for ‘self-healing elastomers’ which would waterproof ports on smartphone devices, such as headphone ports. The material would protect water and debris from getting inside the device and damaging it – when the port needs to be used, the user sticks the connecter through the elastomer and, once removed, it seals itself back up. LG’s G Flex phone also has self-healing properties with a self-healing phone back that can ‘heal’ from scratches and marks on it.
Arguably the most interesting and inspiring use of this technology is how it is being used to make the Sci-Fi concept of artificial skin and replacement parts for the human body a reality. Chemical engineering researchers at the Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel have developed a self-healing, flexible sensor that mimics the self-healing properties of human skin. These researchers have said there is a strong chance the sensor’s self-healing properties could be incorporated into electronic skin of the future, giving it the critical ability to “heal” itself in less than a day. It could even give prosthetic limbs a sense of touch; allowing the wearer to ‘feel’ changes in their environment.
Get ready, because in 2016 materials will begin to resemble living tissue more than static objects.
How it works
Inspired by the biological systems of the body, which are able to heal after being wounded, self-healing materials are smart materials that are structurally incorporated so as to repair damage caused by mechanical usage over time.
If humans cut themselves, the cut will quickly heal so the thinking of researchers is to make metals, plastics, composites and other everyday materials just as ‘smart’.
The technology is extremely complex but scientists are currently working with a range of self-healing materials such as polymers; plastics made from long, repeating molecules, to embedded heating agents, microvascular materials, shape-memory materials and reversible polymers.
In their report on self-healing sensors, the Haifa researchers – Professor Hossam Haick and Dr. Tan-Phat Huynh – commented:
“The vulnerability of flexible sensors used in real-world applications calls for the development of self-healing properties similar to how human skin heals. Accordingly, we have developed a complete, self-healing device in the form of a bendable and stretchable chemiresistor where every part – no matter where the device is cut or scratched – is self-healing.
“[…] One day, the self-healing sensor could serve as a platform for biosensors that monitor human health using electronic skin.”