Self-Healing Plastic Repairs Like Human Skin When Scratched

  on March 27 2012 2:21 PM

A new kind of plastic modeled after human skin heals after being cut or scratched and could pave the way for a new class of self-fixing products, such as planes, tires and cell phones, researchers said Monday at the national conference of the American Chemical Society.

The self-healing marvel comes from small molecular bridges -- chains that run the length of the plastic. When the plastic becomes scratched or damaged, the chains break and change shape. But light, temperature or changes in acidity join the chains back together to mend the damage.

Plastic replaced steel, aluminum, glass and paper because the synthetic is strong, light and corrosion resistant, the researchers said. But damaged plastic is nearly impossible to repair, which leads to landfills full of products that can't biodegrade.

The researchers said they found inspiration from skin, tree bark and DNA that are all able to self-repair.

Our new plastic tries to mimic nature, issuing a red signal when damaged and then renewing itself when exposed to visible light, temperature or pH changes, Marek Urban, lead researcher and polymer scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi, said in a statement.

The color change signals a problem with the plastic. Urban suggested that critical structural parts of an airplane could warn engineers of damage by turning red along cracks. Unlike conventional self-healing materials, the new plastic is reusable.

There are millions and millions of applications [of self-healing plastics], ranging from transportation to sensing to space to energy to cosmetics to health to medicine to many things, Urban told MSNBC. Whatever you desire.

Though Urban's plastic is not yet commercially available, self-healing materials are slowly working their way into consumer products. Nissan has offered a self-healing paint option on some models since 2005 and built an iPhone case with the technology. The paint heals minor scratches in an hour and deeper scratches in a week, according to PC World.

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