Sun-Powered Self-Healing Plastic - The End of Scratched Gadgets?

plastic healing itself image

Image via Ars Technica, Credit: Marek Urban/Science

Two clever scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi have developed a plastic that can utilize UV rays to heal scratches. Think of the way skin mends itself when cut, except imagine that being the surface of your cell phone or iPod.The science behind it is summed up very well by Ars Technica:

At the core of their design is polyurethane, which is an elastic polymer that already has decent scratch resistance. To enhance its ability to withstand mechanical damage, Ghosh and Urban added two more components, OXE and CHI. OXE has an unstable chemical structure (a four-membered ring containing three carbons and one oxygen) that makes it prone to being split open. CHI is UV sensitive.

The idea is that, if the polyurethane gets damaged by a scratch, the unstable ring structure of OXE will open to create two reactive ends. Then, UV light can trigger CHI to form new links with the reactive ends of OXE and thereby fix the break in the polymer.

When tested out with a 120 W fluorescent UV lamp (just slightly stronger than natural sunlight), scratches created by the scientists were healed to the point of being negligible within just a half an hour. It is reminiscent of the self-healing paint we heard about a few years ago.

This kind of development could hold great potential for us as consumers of plastic, helping to create plastic products that last far longer and that stay polished looking so we aren't so quick to buy something new just because our current product looks unattractive.

Before it goes to market, a few things need to be sorted out, such as the shelf life and if the area of a healed scratch can be scratched and healed a second time. We also want to know things like the safety and recyclability of the polymer. But should this get worked out, it could mean longer lives for products, and hopefully a smaller waste stream.

Via Ars Technica via Science
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