The human body is a wondrous instrument. The ability of our body to break and heal itself is common amongst other biological life forms. What about inanimate objects made of plastics, rubbers, films, microfibres, and paints? Applying the self-healing trait to base materials used in everyday life would revolutionize production.

Scientists have reached an extraordinary milestone of applying this ability to engineering materials such as plastics and composites. And they believe they are only a few steps away from full-scale production.

Producing Polymers

Self-healing engineering materials, such as plastics and resins, are difficult to produce. Many of these materials are made up of polymers. Polymers are substances made up of similar units bonded together. Some polymers have been known to display self-healing qualities. Most polymers require unique monomers, or units that can be bonded with polymers, to activate this feature.

Plastics are produced by making bonding polymers together during the production phase. Self-healing plastics have been made before. Most of them require more complex bonding processes to reconnect the molecules after damage or break. Others need an added reactants to play a part to stimulate this repair. A natural and more simplistic method has been a major goal of scientists for years.

The Van Der Waals Forces

Researchers at Clemson University have discovered this method. Their process utilizes the natural intermolecular forces between polymers to make them stronger. The process increases the chances of the polymers to reunite when separated. When the polymers are placed correctly, the forces bringing them together are known as the van der Waals forces.

“When you pull them out, they come back together. It becomes self-healable at that point,” says research author Professor Marek Urban. “As simple as this may sound, these studies also revealed that ubiquitous and typically weak van der Waals interactions in plastics, when oriented, will result in self-healing. This discovery will impact the development of sustainable materials using weak bonding which becomes collectively very strong when oriented.”

Three-Step Response To Healing

Self-healing polymers follow a three-step process, similar to a biological response. First, triggering or actuation happens almost immediately after damage is done. Second, materials are transported to the affected area. And the third step involves the chemical repair.

Implementing Into Current Systems

This discovery may revolutionize the production of self-healing materials. However, the implementation of new processes may not be so difficult. Creating polymer-based material would not necessitate the re-engineering of production facilities. Most existing factories could easily implement new processes with their current facilities. The research team believes production will come sooner rather than later. They estimate polymer production could reach hundreds of gallons within 6 months to a year.

Anyone could produce these new self-healing materials. It requires the design of a synthetic process and be scaled up. “The key is that the scale-up process would have to be precisely controlled,” states Professor Urban. “There is a huge difference between making something in the lab and scaling it up. We know the technology is available for them.”