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.


In Pictures: This Week’s Most Futuristic Designs

1

 3D Printed Micro House

You’d hardly believe this was a house: from the outside it looks like an oversized jelly tin, but this 50ft² structure is a mobile micro home for young people who spend very little time at home.

Designed by 3M futureLAB students, the structure manages to cram in a bathroom, kitchen and bed as well as a space for media projection.


Via Designboom.


2

Reversed Chair

When is a chair not a chair? When it’s a desk. This rather nifty chair-desk hybrid (let’s call it a chesk for now) is the creation of architect Pierre Louis, and is currently on French Kickstarter equivalent Kiss Kiss Bank Bank.

The chesk is designed to easily flip from lounger to office surface, although it’s probably not the best place to set up your desktop computer.


Via Kiss Kiss Bank Bank.


3

Baobed Treehouse

This egg-shaped sleeping pod is for adventurers who like a little luxury.

Measuring 13ft long and 6.5ft wide, its design is based on the fruit of the baobab tree, which dominates central African landscapes.

It can be rigged up for any travel scenario, with space for a double bed if needed, and the option of tree suspension once it has been transported by trailer.


Via Inhabitat.


4

Hualien Residences

This residential development in Taiwan achieves the remarkable feat of combining futuristic design with mountain imagery and a grass roof.

Designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, it combines residential units with commercial spaces to create a stunningly landscapes community. Simply put, we want to live there.


Images courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.


5

Lucio Table

As a side table topped with solar panels, this piece of furniture is designed to charge your tech using just natural light.

Designed by Italy-based Studio Natural, the table is intended to be used as an island piece without the need for tethering to the nearest wall, banishing the standard mess of cables once and for all.


Images courtesy of Moco.