Scientists are working on technology that could one day lead to self-healing devices. Here’s how it works.

SeekerPublished: July 10, 2018Updated: July 11, 2018
Published: July 10, 2018Updated: July 11, 2018

Researchers in China have developed a ‘smart coating’ that behaves like skin, heals itself from damage, and is as hard as tooth enamel. This development represents a big step forward in materials science, but self-healing isn’t exactly new tech. There are three main general types of self-healing tech available right now: one where the healing agents are embedded in the material, one where a vascular network--kind of like your body’s veins--brings healing agents to the site of damage, and one where the material is intrinsically capable of healing itself when exposed to a certain stimulus, like heat.

Some use ionic conduction, some use covalent bonding and conductive silver nanoparticles, and one has been developed by a team in China that takes inspiration from the human body. If your phone screen cracks with something like this new technology, the softer, cushy bottom layer reacts to the trauma and provides material to fill in the broken bits of the top layer, while the hardness of the top layer provides a protective coating to allow the ‘healing’ to take place.

The harder top layer is also antimicrobial, meaning it could have future implications for biomedical devices. Other teams around the world have been exploring similar technologies: in just the last few years we’ve seen the beginnings of soft, self-healing robots that can perform delicate tasks and fit into small spaces. The applications of this technology are limitless -- imagine flexible, self-healing ‘electronic skin’ that could attach to a person’s body and monitor their health, or a host of other potential applications in human-robot interaction and prosthetic limb enhancement.

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