Self-Healing Plastics: Materials that Can Restore Their Molecular Structure

Plastics have found their way into an incredible number of items in our lives, from cars and gadget cases to furniture and accessories, but they have traditionally been seen as ‘cheap’ materials because of their easy-to-scratch finish.

This could soon be changing, as scientists from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have developed a way of creating plastics with a built-in self-healing method to repair cracks, scratches and other damage.

The molecules in the plastic are linked together by a reversible chemical reaction, turning them into something called a switchable network that can be broken down into its constituent materials and then reassembled again.

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This process can be initiated just by using heat, light or a chemical substance, making it a straightforward method for use in non-lab situations.

“Our method does not need any catalyst, no additive is required,” said KIT group leader Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik.

Not all plastics can be used, but in a press release KIT confirmed that the “self-healing properties can be transferred to a large range of plastics known”. Of those, healing can be triggered within a very short time at temperatures between 50°C to 120°C.

Most of the research has been to speed up the time healing takes and to confirm that the plastic’s original strength and tension could be completely restored. In some instances the team has been able to improve material strength with the process.

“We succeeded in demonstrating that test specimens after first healing were bound even more strongly than before,” said Barner-Kowollik.

The technology can also be used to mould plastics, which could potentially make it a rival for 3D printing – the scientists have suggested that the technology could be used to produce reinforced plastic components for aircrafts and vehicles.

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The technology could turn plastic into a far more valuable and durable material – it would no longer be so firmly associated with a throwaway culture if it could heal itself, which could result in less waste from plastics.

One of the best potential applications of this would be for vehicle chassis – scratches and chips could be fixed within seconds using just a hairdryer.

Similarly, phone cases, apparel and wearables could all benefit – being able to easily heal your product would keep it looking new long after it had been bought, which could again result in a less throwaway approach to these gadgets and items.


Inline images courtesy of Esther Simpson and Henning Mühlinghaus.


Future of City Travel: Flying Car Set for Launch

Despite the timing, this is not an April Fool’s joke:  if all goes to plan, flying cars could soon be a familiar sight in cities across the world.

Silicon Valley-based Mix Aerospace has developed a plan for a vehicle that functions both as a car and a personal flying machine, which it has named Skylys. The company is seeking funding through Indiegogo to make the project a reality.

While the idea may seem technologically remote, the company already has a complete design as well as a number of patents and backing from key figures in the aerospace industry.

If enough funding is attracted, a prototype should be ready by 2017.

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Skylys will fly in a similar way to a helicopter, using a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) system integrated into a set of wings, meaning that it could be flown by anyone with a helicopter licence. Once it lands, the wings will detach, turning it into a road-legal car that can be driven as normal.

Although flying cars are traditionally a staple of retrofuturistic city concepts, the company believes that there is huge potential for the technology in the real world.

Writing on its Indiegogo project page, the company said: “A lot of people want to believe in flying cars but find it hard to grasp the reality of the situation, pushing the idea back to science fiction and out of reach. We strongly believe that the time is right, there are uses for such a vehicle.”

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Initially Mix sees Skylys being used by police, fire and ambulance services, and believes it could play a major role in disaster situations such as Hurricane Katrina, where it could have airlifted people from flooded areas of New Orleans.

It also sees it as a potential vehicle for private individuals: it could replace private chauffer services in cities where traffic congestion is a problem, and could land on buildings in skyscraper-rich cities such as Dubai.

Long-term we’d like to think it will be accessible to normal people, but for now it is likely to be restricted to the super wealthy. Funders can pre-order a vehicle now, although with the incredibly hefty price tag of €1m we don’t expect many takers.

The Indiegogo campaign, which started yesterday, has a target of €2.25m but is using flexible funding, meaning that the company will keep any money raised even if it does not hit the final goal.

The project seems in part to be to raise enough money to recruit engineering staff and boost awareness so that the company can attract venture capital financing and build an international marketing platform to sell to the wealthy elite.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect a change on the Indiegogo website which originally stated the cost to receive a prototype was €1bn – since publication this has been changed to €1m. 


Images courtesy of Mix Aerospace.