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Rise of the Self-Healing Machines

Sometime in the not-too-distant future you will drop and crack your smartphone screen, scratch your car, or your four-year-old laptop's processing speed will slow to a glacial pace. Many of us will cling to our prized possessions, holding out as long as possible before giving in and replacing them either out of sentiment or frugality.

But what if we didn't have to?

According to some industry experts, materials that can heal themselves, just like plants and animals heal wounds, may be just around the corner.

This technology kicked off in 2001 when a team of researchers led by Scott White from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign infused a polymer with microscopic capsules that, upon breaking, would release a healing agent. A chemical reaction between the polymer and the agent would bond the cracked surfaces back together.

But the team didn't stop there. Most recently, they showcased an electrical circuit that released molten metal in response to damage, bringing self-healing chips one step closer to reality.

Dr. Benjamin Blaiszik of Argonne National Laboratory believes that this shows great promise for military applications: "Imagine if there is a mechanical failure of a microchip on the Curiosity rover due to thermomechanical stresses, or if there had been an interconnect failure during the landing phase. There is obviously no way to manually repair nor replace the probe."

However, the Illinois team anticipates the first applications of this technology will be paints, coatings and adhesives, and has launched a spin-off company, Autonomic Materials, to capitalize on their research. The applications could benefit multiple industries by protecting everything from drilling and pipeline infrastructure to military vehicles, cars and aircraft.

Despite some manufacturers' reticence to use a technology that will significantly lengthen product lifespan, the academic world has embraced the topic, resulting in the addition of two new approaches to the self-repair arsenal. The vascular method employs a series of channels into which healing agents are poured, whereas the intrinsic method makes use of the reversible properties of chemical bonds.

However, each of these techniques has a drawback: microcapsules can be expended, sapping the material of its healing properties; intrinsic healing requires a stimulus such as light or heat; and vascular healing, while ideal for large breaks, is extremely complex.

However, researchers remain optimistic. Despite the challenges to realizing self-repairing materials, we are only beginning to tap into the ways in which nature manages the miracle.

Full story at BBC News

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