Coming soon to a street near you is a house with walls made of bricks that grow and repair themselves, windows made of glass that is flexible and shatter-proof, and fixtures made of plastic that rejoin themselves. This is set to happen due to the rapid strides in materials science, making commonly-used materials tougher and adaptive to external stress. These developments could positively affect industries ranging from construction and electronics to aerospace engineering.
Capable of repair without external catalysts or drastic alterations in temperature, self-healing materials are one such example. Self-healing plastics, a recent creation of Spanish scientists, have been engineered to rejoin when broken. Experiments have shown that two broken pieces, when pressed together and left for two hours, achieved an impressive 97 percent healing efficiency. This could boost the longevity and integrity of commonly found plastic products and components, while avoiding expensive repairs.
Elsewhere, advances are being made in adding flexibility to otherwise stiff materials. For example, bendable glass was an engineering breakthrough this year. Inspired by the tough yet flexible exterior of seashells, this glass has proven to be less brittle than its typical counterparts while also remaining 200 times stronger than current glass.
Super-capacitors, a common power source for electronics, have now been engineered to become flexible. Hurdles often faced by electronics manufacturers attempting to make smaller, thinner, and wearable electronics can now be overcome with these nano-chips that measure less than half a centimeter yet pack the same power as a traditional battery. Among other applications, this also paves the way for building vast networks of body sensors and better-controlled robotic limbs.
Self-growing materials are another fascinating development. These combine a biological growth system with artificial materials to encourage them to self-form. A unique example is a self-growing brick that develops into a coral like block with the help of active bacteria mixed with sand. According to estimations, current manufacturing processes release over 800 million tons of CO2 each year. Innovations such as this can not only maintain the strength of the common brick but also alleviate the emissions associated with material manufacturing.
While many of these materials are in the development and experimentation stage, organizations are beginning to see massive potential in their implementation. Leaders in the mobile phone market have used self-healing plastics to reduce scratches on phones. Flexible materials can be used to create foldable electronic displays. This is particularly useful in special cases, such as the military where electronic durability is essential.
A current EU funded project is exploring the potential of self-healing aerospace components using nano-encapsulated healing agents. This could drastically reduce aircraft maintenance costs, and improve flight safety and quality.
These self-assembling, self-repairing materials could not only enable the development of enhanced products but also bode well for the reduction of daily wastage. Furthermore, the average product of the future will last longer with virtually no repair or maintenance required.
How else do you think these futuristic materials could impact our lives? Please leave your comments in the section below.
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