Self-healing polymers coming soon

Materials World magazine
12 Oct 2018

Polymers that can repair themselves may soon be affordable, thanks to a breakthrough by researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, USA, led by Dr Marek Urban.

Scientists have been working on perfecting the production of self-repairing polymers for around 20 years. As yet this is possible but very expensive, and far too pricey for the large number of low-cost applications they currently serve, including paints, coatings and plastics, such as mobile phone covers.

To test the possibilities, Urban and his team investigated the interactions between co-polymers which when combined would become entangled and eventually interlock, making them difficult to break apart. Their strong attraction meant that even when pulled apart the strands were inclined to return together and effectively self-heal.

‘These studies also revealed that ubiquitous and typically weak van der Waals interactions in plastics, when oriented, will result in self-healing,’ said Urban. ‘This discovery will impact the development of sustainable materials using weak bonding which becomes collectively very strong when oriented.’

But the real discovery here is Urban’s technique and technology, which would give manufacturers the capability to produce self-healing polymers without the need to invest in a purpose-built factory.

‘We know exactly how to design these systems,’ he said. ‘We understand the limitations, we have analytical tools to measure, and we understand what it takes for this technology to go to the next level.’

Urban believes this research could be raised to industrial scale within a year, significantly lowering the costs of producing advanced polymers.

The full paper, Key-and-Lock: commodity self-healing copolymers was co-authored by Dmitriy Davydovich, Ying Yang, Tugba Demir, Yunzhi Zhang and Leah Casabianca, at Clemson University, and published in Science