Self-Healing Polymer Will Make Flat Tires Things of the Past


Remember how the T-100 terminator robot from Terminator 2 could heal itself? Have you ever wondered how cool it would be to own something that would do the same thing, like busted plastic pipes or flat car tires that repair themselves? The time is rapidly approaching when you’ll have the chance to do just that, thanks to the “magic” of modern polymers. Flat tires just might become things of the past.

Researchers in Spain have developed self-healing polymers, at the CIDETEC Centre for Electrochemical Technologies. Imagine holding two halves of a plastic PVC pipe together, or close to each other on a table, and having the two halves fuse back together as you watch. How many decades away are we from having such polymers? How about now?

The plastic products we use every day are made up of polymers, and polymers exist in natures, as well. The long molecular chains which are connected by chemical bonds are in the silk that’s used to make designer clothing; the shells of shrimp and lobster; our very DNA.

What is a common naturally-occurring polymers that can heal itself?

Skin is one of the most common polymer that can heal itself, provided it is not damaged too badly. Human skin doesn’t heal as quickly as the android T-100 in Terminator 2, but if you get a small cut and put medicine and a bandaid on it, or you have a larger cut stitched up, the two sides of the cut will — given time — fuse together.

Some examples of common synthetic polymers are synthetic rubber and nylon, both of which date from the WWII era, created in response to shortages in rubber and silk. Other, more recent examples include polyester and PVC that’s used in material like pipes.

One thing that synthetic polymers have never been able to do that a natural polymer like skin can do is to heal themselves.

However, as you can see when you watch the video  by clicking on Source 1 below, the Spanish scientists at the CIDETEC Centre for Electrochemical Technologies have managed to develop a polymer which can be sliced completely in two using a razor blade, and then you can watch it bind itself back together on its own, without the aid of any catalyst. The report of their research can be read in its entirety  in the journal Materials Horizon (Sept. 13).

The Spanish scientists recently created a polymer that can bind itself back together even after being sliced with a razor blade, without the help of a catalyst. This is the first man-made self-healing polymer to function without a catalyst,they report in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Materials Horizon.

Other than the aptness of the comparison to the T-100 android, I have been making references to the flick Terminator 2 because — you guessed it — the polymer that the Spanish scientists created they nicknamed “Terminator.”

The authors of the study demonstrate in the video how a cylinder made of the polymer “was cut in half with a knife.” After placing the two halves together, in contact with each other, and at room temperature,
the polymer had started to bind back together within the space of an hour.

The polymer has been described as a kind of Velcro-like adhesive.

The “Terminator” polymer, within two hours, was 97% healed, and within 22 hours, it was as good as new. Then, the scientists demonstrated that they could stretch it in their hands without the material rupturing or tearing.

Two years ago, in 2011, Case Western Reserve University researchers came close to what the Spanish scientists achieved. They created a polymer which healed itself if it was placed under an UV light. The polymer that they developed has been used as a coating to seal surface scratches on items like table tops and cars.

The polymer in this Spanish study is what is known as a “thermoset elastometer.” The researchers created it like they would any other type of synthetic polymer, through the use of easily available polymeric starter materials.

This self-healing polymer will be used for w wide variety of products, like in creating paints, stronger sealants, and adhesives, and eventually, even self-repairing tires, pipes, and children’s toys. One day soon, flat tires may very well be things of the past.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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