Inspired by the pandemic-induced need for durable, clean face masks and other personal protection equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19, researchers may have developed a biosynthetic polymer material that repairs itself by synthesizing a protein found in squids.
A study published Monday in the science journal Nature Materials reports on an international team of researchers from Germany, Turkey, and Penn State University in the United States. It describes how they were able to transform unique proteins found in squid teeth into a soft, biodegradable material that could be used to develop so-called “soft robots” and tear-resistant personal protective equipment (PPE).
Self-repairing materials are not a new thing, but researchers say the existing materials can take up to 24-hours to “heal” and when they do, they tend to not be as strong as the original. But the lead author of this latest study, Abdon Pena-Francesch, said they were able to reduce “a typical 24-hour healing period to one second.”
He said, "In nature, self-healing takes a long time. In this sense, our technology outsmarts nature." The researchers say their material also reproduces itsself back to 100 percent of its original strength.
Co-author of the study Melik Demirel says the materials regenerative properties have to be activated by adding water or pressure, but they envision the process could be activated using light.
Along with PPE, researchers say their material has applications in any product that puts materials under continual repetitive motion that might develop tiny tears and cracks and eventually break. This might include industrial robotic arms or prosthetic legs.
Demirel says the material not only provides performance, but it also is biodegradable, meaning it quickly and cleanly dissolves in nature. That means, he says, the future of masks and ventilators could be green as well.