Take the weight advantage of plastic, add the ability to self-repair small cracks before they become big cracks, and you’ve got yourself a durable new material that could improve the lifespan for thousands of ordinary objects, and help to reduce energy demand in vehicles and machines. That’s the idea behind a new kind of self-repairing plastic under development at several research centers around the globe, including the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and Iowa State University here in the U.S.
Rubber Trees and Self-Repairing Plastic
Researchers at Fraunhofer took as their inspiration the rubber tree hevea Brasiliensis. Latex from the tree contains capsules that break open if the tree is damaged. That enables a protein called hevein to escape, which interacts with the latex to seal the wound. Initial tests on a synthetic rubber (synthetic caoutchouc), using microscopic capsules full of a simple adhesive, showed that the natural healing process can be replicated.
Meanwhile, over at Iowa State, a research team has upped the ante. Rather than focusing on petroleum based polymers, the team is set on developing a bioplastic with self-healing properties. Bioplastics are a maturing research field, but the idea of applying self-healing properties to a polymer made from vegetable oils is new. Lightweight, self-healing bioplastics could find many uses in aeronautics and other weight-sensitive, high stress applications, so it’s no wonder that the U.S. Department of Defense has chipped in funding for the research.
Image: Rubber tree by jonrawlinson on flickr.com.