Out of the Lab: Self-Healing Polymers May Change the Face (Literally) of Electronics

Out of the Lab: Self-Healing Polymers May Change the Face (Literally) of Electronics

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine recently announced the development of a self-healing polymer with applications in smartphones and robotics. Lead scientist Dr. Chao Wang announced the findings at the American Chemical Society meeting on April 4th. The material can be severed but will automatically re-integrate itself seamlessly over a period of hours, thanks to a chemical structure based on ion-diople interactions.

Source: Wang Lab

The material also has other interesting properties: It can stretch to 50 times its size and snap back into shape. And researchers have crafted an experimental artificial muscle by layering the material between non-conductive membranes; the material can contract and expand in response to electrical signals.

There are a range of potential applications for this material (which does not yet have a name). These range from self-healing batteries to self-healing smartphones to robotic muscles. There are also many intriguing possible applications for the Internet of Things (IoT), as being able to signal a device to contract or expand could be extremely useful in telerobotics applications.

Dr. Wang has been researching self-healing materials since his tenure as a researcher at Stanford in 2013; he reportedly was inspired by the Marvel cartoon character “Wolverine” to research self-healing materials.

The polymer has some drawbacks, however; the top one is strong susceptibility to humidity, as water interferes with the ionic bonds. Dr. Wang and his team are working to reduce this susceptibility.

It’s not clear now long it will take for the material to be produced commercially; all the components are already available commercially, so in theory it could be mass-produced at low costs. Technology professionals looking to build out next-generation robots, IoT networks, or self-healing displays should keep a close eye on this material.