Amphibian-Like Synthetic Gel Could Repair Itself

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Science fiction practically taunts us with tales about objects or cyborgs that self-repair. A group of chemical engineers have nudged us slightly closer to that vision with a design for synthetic gel that could allow complex materials to regenerate.

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“This is one of the holy grails of materials science,” University of Pittsburgh chemical and petroleum engineering professor Anna Balazs said in a Pitt Engineering press release.

Although scientists have successfully made materials that can handle small repairs, being able to regenerate large sections of a cut material had remained elusive until now.

In the pursuit of this holy grail, Balazs and her colleagues studied biological processes that occur in amphibians like salamanders that can regenerate their tissue. Synthetic materials lack sophisticated circulatory systems that work like a sensor to detect a problem and send in the components needed for repair. To address this, the team designed a special material embedded with a gel containing nanorods that detect a cut and expand into the void, the BBC’s Pippa Stephens reported.

Balazs led the research in collaboration with associate professor Olga Kuksenok, postdoc Xin Yong and Carnegie Mellon natural sciences professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski. The team published their findings as well as details about their computer model in the journal Nano Letters (abstract). The scientists suggested that this manmade material could one day be used to make self-healing furniture and even phones.

A friend of mine recently admitted to stepping on her electronic reader by accident. At the moment there’s no bringing it back, but what if in the future it just needed some time to heal? Being a total klutz myself, I have my own embarrassing list of broken objects that I’d love to have avoided recycling.

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The tricky side of self-repair is that many companies build obsolescence into their products, especially electronics. They wouldn’t make as much money if those products were designed to outlive us all. When the technology finally does get that sophisticated, perhaps consumers could choose a more expensive self-healing “Teflon” model. I’d buy it.

Photo (top) Credit: Born1945 via Flickr and Image (bottom): A computer model of the new self-regenerating material. Credit: University of Pittsburgh