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Scientists Create Plastic That Repairs Itself

FILE - Illinois researchers have developed materials that regenerate when the restorative material is delivered through two, isolated fluid streams (dyed red and blue), and the liquid immediately gels and later hardens. (Ryan Gergely)
Modeled on the blood vessels that make up the human circulatory system, scientists have created a plastic material that repairs itself. Researchers believe self-regenerating plastic could be used in many ways.

Imagine a sheet of plastic with a tear or hole in the middle; suddenly, the breach begins to fill in. Within a few seconds, the hole is completely covered with new plastic material. In a couple of hours, the plastic is as hard as ever.

Central to this self-regeneration process, according to inventor Scott White of the University of Illinois Urbana, are parallel, vascular-like channels through which liquid repair material is funneled onto the damaged plastic.

A big challenge in the development of the self-regeneration system was gravity, which would make the repair material leak out. Scientists developed two chemicals, though, which mix and congeal immediately after reaching the damage site. The material then fills the hole or crack in the plastic by folding on top of itself until the entire breach is patched.

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White said scientists got the idea from the human circulatory system and the body’s use of platelets to repair a wound.

“If we had a major gash, there’s a possibility we could bleed out," he said. "But if that cut is not too severe, we should see a clot form and then the repair process takes place underneath that clot. And this is the same kind of principle here.”

Self-healing plastic could be used in a number of ways, White said. For example, it could be used as a protective coating on metal.

“If you had a regenerative coating in this case, you could basically walk away and be assured there is always going to be a coating on that substrate [material to be protected] and never have to worry about a corrosion process happening anymore,” he said.

White, a professor of aerospace engineering, said that might be useful on the deck of ships, which commonly get scrapped and dinged, causing rust to form, or as a coating on car bumpers to repair dings and scrapes.

White said the research is in the early stages; currently, the repair is visible. In time, however, he said it will be difficult to see where the damage was after the plastic regenerates itself.