Stanford University's new self-healing polymer
Stanford University's new self-healing polymer

The heightened demand for more sustainable and resilient products has often driven attention to self-repairing materials. Indeed, materials that can withstand minor abuse and return to their original physical condition are understandably attractive. When this self-repair process is sufficiently reliable, such materials can be expected to significantly outlast their conventional counterparts. Moreover, less substance may actually be required, since many materials are over-engineered to avoid initial failure. 

Although there have been challenges to developing self-repairing materials—such as materials that heal themselves only once, or materials that heal only at high temperatures—Professor Zhenan Bao and her team of scientists at Stanford University recently published their invention of an improved self-healing plastic with novel properties. 

Bao's new polymer, which incorporates small particles of nickel, is a self-healing material capable of multiple repairs. Moreover, the polymer has the conductivity of metal, so that it can detect and communicate small changes in pressure. The result is a plastic that is not only capable of self-repair, but also one that behaves more like human skin in terms of its sensory capabilities. “Before our work, it was very hard to imagine that this kind of flexible, conductive material could also be self-healing," said Chao Wang, a post-doctoral scholar and co-author of the research. 

Next, the team intends to develop a transparent version of the material that can be used for touch-screen interfaces or robotics. Given the importance of physical resilience and scalable economic potential of portable electronic devices, it may not be long before our smartphones are wrapped in synthetic skin. 

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.