A chemist at the University of Southern Mississippi, Marek Urban explains that there is a new substance that could save numerous surfaces; it is a polyurethane coat that “heals itself” when exposed to ultraviolet light (sunlight). It can coat anything scratch-able, including cars, airplanes, electronics, etc. Meaning that anything with the coating will last longer and look newer without having to be repaired or updated.
This polyurethane compound is fairly new to the market, but certainly is not the first of its kind; in 2001, researchers at the University of Illinois studied synthetic material by embedding “tiny liquid-filled capsules” into a polymer coating (similar to what is used in paints). When the coating was damaged, for example, cracked, the mini capsules burst and spilled healing agents into the area, which repaired the damage.
Four years later, Scott White, one of the scientists from U. of Illinois, founded a company, Autonomic Materials, Inc. that is working towards introducing these self-healing materials to the market in the near future.
The tiny capsules are part of one of many methods being tested; UCLA and USC scientists created a compound that heals itself (much like the previously mentioned compound) but instead of UV rays, this coat responds to high temperatures. Both coatings are similar in that they need external stimuli to begin the “healing process.”
Urban and his co-author Biswajit Ghosh (also from U. of Southern Mississippi) produced the compound by mixing chitosan (a derivative of chitin, the main component of exoskeletons in crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters) into polyurethane. Then, they made tiny nicks in the material and exposed it to UV light close to an intensity produced by the sun. Once exposed to the radiation, a series of reactions occurred and the damaged molecules linked to each other, as if rebuilding themselves. In total, the healing took about 30 minutes.
Although still in testing, this new technology seems promising, especially since it’s not moisture-sensitive, meaning the coating should work in numerous different climates. Urban says that this coating is also economical—which is great to hear these days—because the chitosan is very inexpensive. The only drawback as of now is that the coating can only repair itself once. However, this is still a step in a positive direction.
I can’t think of a better out-of-the-box example of technology. The broad definition of technology is that it is a demonstration of how animals use knowledge and tools to adapt to and improve upon their environments. Think of any automobile driver: I’m sure that more likely than not, he/she has gotten a ding or scratch in a car’s paint while driving around. Everyone gets bumps and bruises while putting their cars through the "wear and tear" of the road. This coating is a great concoction that no doubt will be further developed in the future. Now it’s self-healing polyurethane coating, next, it could be something even better. That’s the beauty of technology; if you wait long enough or work hard enough, something new and different will come along and improve old ideas even more.