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Rewriting Life

Self-Healing Plastic

A material repairs itself multiple times.

A new polymer material that fixes its own cracks could be a step toward self-healing medi­cal implants or self-­repairing materials for use in airplanes and spacecraft. It consists of an epoxy polymer layer containing tiny catalyst particles, deposited on a substrate containing microchannels filled with a liquid.

Self-repair: Cracks release fluid from ¬microchannels (tubes); the fluid solidifies after touch¬ing catalysts (dots).

When a crack in the polymer layer spreads to the micro­channels, the liquid flows out and comes in contact with the catalyst, says Nancy Sottos, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-­Champaign and one of the researchers who led the work. Ten hours later, the liquid ­solidifies into a polymer.

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Researchers have previously made self-healing plastics, but this is the first time anyone has made a material that can repair itself multiple times on its own. The material survived up to seven cracks before the catalyst stopped working.

“It’s essentially like giving life to a plastic,” says Chris Bielawski, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is an amazing proof of concept.”

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