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.
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.
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.