Researchers work to improve the lifecycle of materials

Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology are working on materials that can react to their environment, recover from damage, and even self-destruct once their usefulness has come to an end.

Jeff Moore, professor of chemistry at the Beckman Institute, said: “What we've tried to capture for the first time is a vision of polymers as multifunctional entities that can manage their well-being.”

Moore described the autonomous function of materials this way: “Live long, be fit, die fast, and leave no mess behind. We want the materials to live as long as they can in a healthy state and, when the time comes, be able to trigger the inevitable from a functional state to recoverable materials resources.”

The researchers identified five landscape-altering developments: self-protection, self-reporting, self-healing, regeneration, and controlled degradation.

Much of their work revolves around microcapsules, which are small, fluid-filled spheres that can be integrated into various material systems. The capsules contain a healing agent that is released automatically when exposed to a specific environmental change, such as physical damage or excessive temperature.

“You have capsules that remain stable in the material until the environment causes a stress that causes them to rupture,” explained Nancy Sottos, professor of materials science and engineering. “A lot of different external stimuli can open up the capsules. You can have a thermal trigger, a mechanical trigger, and we've worked a lot on chemical triggers. They open up, release their contents, and the science is in what comes out and reacts.”

By developing new chemistries and ways to integrate microcapsules over the years, the researchers have created polymers that can do everything from re-filling minor damage in paints and coatings, changing colour when undergoing stress, and re-bonding cracks or restoring electrical conductivity.

The AMS Group also developed a way to efficiently fabricate vascular networks within polymers. These networks, which can include multiple channels that run throughout a material, are able to deliver healing agents multiple times, change thermal or magnetic properties, and facilitate other useful chemical interactions in a material.

A major development in their self-healing work focuses on repairing large-scale damage through the process of regeneration.

“Ballistic impacts, drilling holes in sheets of plastic, where a significant mass is lost, traditional self-healing has no way of dealing with that problem at all,” Scott White, professor of aerospace engineering, said. “The materials that would be used to heal that hole would simply fall out, bleed out under gravity.”

So White and his collaborators came up with a two-channel healing system. When damage occurs on a large scale, a gel-like substance fills the space and builds upon itself, keeping the healing agents in place until they harden.

Their most recent work is concerned with how to deal with material systems when they have reached the end of their useful life. This work involves making materials that can self-destruct when a specific environmental signal is given. The researchers believe that triggers such as high temperature, water, ultraviolet light, and many others may one day be used to make obsolete devices degrade quickly so that they can be reused or recycled, reducing electronic waste and boosting sustainability.

Autonomous polymers are beginning to make their way into the commercial sector. Commercialisation efforts have produced materials such as wear-resistant mobile device cases and automotive paints that can self-repair minor scratches.

Author
Tom Austin-Morgan

This material is protected by MA Business copyright
See Terms and Conditions.
One-off usage is permitted but bulk copying is not.
For multiple copies contact the sales team.

 

Supporting Information
Do you have any comments about this article?
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Your comments/feedback may be edited prior to publishing. Not all entries will be published.
Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

© MA Business Ltd (a Mark Allen Group Company) 2018