A "Sweet" Take on Self-Healing Polymers
Mark Atwater posted on December 30, 2014 |

Accidents happen. The unfortunate part is that there are often enduring side-effects. But what if your cracked smart phone could heal itself. This idea is not new, but a different take on it may make the process a little “sweeter.”

If any structure is damaged, repairs can be done by adding reinforcement from new material, but it is always invasive and difficult or impractical in many cases. Why throw away an otherwise operable product? A material that can fix itself would save money, but it could also save lives in critical components. Self-healing materials, particularly polymers, have attracted attention because they enable these possibilities.

There are already examples of self-healing polymers which have been developed for applications such as in Li-Ion batteries, but not all healing mechanisms are the same. That’s where Marek Urban comes in. He, too, has come up with some ways to enable polymers to repair themselves, but the latest has a special ingredient. Sugar.

As described in a Clemson University news article, Urban’s newest method has some distinct advantages over others. For instance, in previous work he devised a self-healing polymer which uses UV-light to activate the healing process. While that works well in sunny climates, the dependence on light was somewhat of a barrier to broader application.

The new polymer can repair itself from ingredients in the air. The revised chemistry needs only carbon dioxide and water vapor; two ingredients which occur just about everywhere. From Urban’s research website, “This process requires atmospheric amounts of CO2 and H2O, thus resembling plant behavior of carbon fixation during the photosynthesis cycle.”

This simplicity, including the polymer chemistry, lends itself to straightforward commercialization. As Urban describes it, “Our process is simple and based on the existing materials. You don’t want to build a new factory to make polymers that are self-healing. You would like to take existing technologies to another level. Companies like that because it’s an add-on value to already existing markets.”

 

Image: Marek Urban Research Group, Clemson University

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