Self Healing Plastic: Dents, Dings, and Scratches Fix Themselves

By Cailtin Vandewater

It has happened to all of us at some point, when you underestimate the distance between your car and a stationary object — the car parked next to you, a mailbox, high rise curbs — and accidentally ding up your car door or scratch your bumper. Like most things in life, we put an increased value on cars that look nice, so discovering a ding or scratch on your vehicle can be a painful experience.

Although a scratch on the bumper is not going to affect the way the car runs, it can affect the car’s resale value. Unless you are willing to pay for a touch-up kit or a new outer shell for your car, you have to learn to live with all of the beauty marks your car receives over time. So what if all of those dings and dents could magically disappear or heal themselves without costing a fortune? Thanks to research presented at this year’s meeting of the American Chemistry Society, this notion may become a reality in the not so distant future.

Professor of polymer science Marek W. Urban, of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, reported in a presentation on a new type of plastic that mimics human skin in that it “bleeds” when damaged and can heal itself when exposed to light.

How do self-healing plastics work?

During Urban’s research, plastics were created with small molecular “bridges” that span through the chemicals that the plastics are made of. When the material is damaged, the links break and change shape and color. When exposed to sunlight or a light bulb, the bridges reform and the color goes back to normal. The plastics also heal when exposed to a change in pH or temperature. As stated on Geek.com, unlike other types of self-healing plastics, which typically can only heal the plastic once, this new type can heal itself over and over again. This is because the healing agent is external. This new type of plastic is also created using a water-based process, so it is more environmentally friendly than previous self-healing products.

self repairing self healing plastic

This product holds a lot of potential in many industries. It can be used for structural parts in aircrafts as well as in military operations. The color change will warn of damage and help engineers decide whether or not they need to replace the part. Because the plastics can be healed when exposed to light, it can provide a sustainable fix if a part is unavailable. According to TheBlaze.com, this research project has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, so it is likely that some of the first products to use this technology will be for military use.

Self-healing plastics and the cell phone industry

On a smaller scale, self-healing plastics can play an important role in the development of protective cases for our favorite electronics, notably cellphones, iPods and wireless tablets. Although there is an expansive protective case market for these products, none of them guarantee the ability to not only protect your product, but also heal itself when damage is inflicted. The cases we use to protect our precious electronics take a real beating and lose some of their aesthetic quality over time. In the long run, all that matters is that your iPhone remains unscratched under the case, but wouldn’t it be cool if the case had the ability to heal itself and keep a like-new look?

For those of us who dare brave the world without protective cases, the possibility of having this technology incorporated into our favorite products itself is exciting and potentially fatal for the protective case market. If cellphone companies are able to create phones that come prepackaged with a self-healing plastic cover, all of those over-priced and cheaply made cases may become obsolete. This is highly unlikely, because people are still going to want to decorate their iPhones with cases that resemble Nintendo Game Boys or cassette tapes, but it’s possible that the protective cases of today may take on a more decorative quality in the future.

The possibilities with this technology are endless, as plastic products are present in almost every aspect of our lives. From PVC pipes to high-end kayaks and canoes, this technology can revolutionize a lot of pocket industries in America, and quite possibly the world. It may help cut down on the overall plastic production worldwide and the rate at which plastic is wasted and placed in landfills.

As of now, there are no products utilizing this technology, according to Geek.com. Additional research is being conducted to further enhance the abilities of the product, including a higher heat resiliency, which will expand on what it can be used for.

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