One of plastic’s most endearing (and enduring) qualities is its unique durability and resulting longevity. That beloved quality is about to get even better thanks to ambitious developments in self-sustaining plastic repair. Two recent advances in plastic repair have resulted in the invention of different self-healing polymers. Though both developed plastics are still in their infancy, the promise of self-maintaining plastic repair already has the gears turning for practical applications of the invention. Self-healing plastic is expected to completely change the face of the plastic industry along with several neighboring industries, such as the automotive industry.
Basic Similarities of Self-Healing Polymers
Plastic repair will be ushered into the age of self-repair through exclusive traits that allow the material to amend if damaged. The two self-healing materials that have already been developed require a catalyst for the plastic repair process to take place. However, researchers hope to find a way for the plastic repair process to take place automatically without the need of an activating catalyst.
Vitrimers Mark a Milestone in Plastic Repair Innovation
Ludwik Liebler invented Vitrimers, his self-amending answer to plastic repair, from the unlikely influence of Terminator 2’s seemingly unstoppable fluid metal juggernaut, the T-1000. Vitrimers utilize heat and a chemical motivator to amend themselves if damaged. The process is likened to melting back together.
Vitrimers combines two different branches of plastic, using the benefits of their attributes for self-healing properties. The first branch of plastic, thermoplastics, offers a malleability necessary for the self-maintaining plastic repair of Vitrimers. However, unlike Vitrimers, thermoplastics cannot be remolded once an initial molding has taken place. Thermosets, the other branch of plastic incorporated into Vitrimers, hold their form under heat but can be reconstructed as many times as desired. Liebler was able to harness the coveted qualities of both thermoplastics and thermosets to create the resilient, structurally reliable, fully recyclable, and supple Vitrimers.
Liebler concocted Vitrimers in his position as material scientist at the illustrious ESCPI Institute in Paris, France. The plastic repair innovation garnered Liebler the 2015 Inventor Award from the European Patent Office. He believes that the durability and ruggedness of a self-healing polymer will find initial application in vehicles and other transit projects but also acknowledges the leaps and bounds Vitrimers could bring to medical science or something as mundane as cracked smartphone screens.
The Water Catalyst Alternative
Across the pond at Penn State University, researchers were bypassing heated catalysts in favor of a polymer with similar self-administering plastic repair procedures initiated by water. While these researchers weren’t finding influence in the T-1000, their inspiration was just as unexpected. They discovered that they could engineer a polymer that mimicked the self-healing properties of a specific protein found in squid teeth.
Upon synthesizing a similarly structured polymer, the researchers used a blade to sever the flexible plastic in two. Then, after applying water and pressure, the research team was able to successfully heal the polymer with no structural loss. This uphold of structural integrity is paramount in applications of plastic repair.
The self-healing material offers another facet to the plastic repair opportunities offered initially by Vitrimers in that its catalyst is markedly different. Whereas Vitrimers are being considered for use in land-based vehicles, the polymer inspired by squid proteins would be ideal for use in aquatic applications. The plastic repair properties inherent in both newly developed plastics are being considered for use in the medical field. While Vitrimers is being developed with its initial focus on vehicles, the other polymer is primarily focused on medical use.
Both of the self-healing plastics are being considered breakthrough inventions so there’s no real timetable of when we can expect the materials to be incorporated into the market. It also remains uncertain how such a novel approach to plastic repair may impact retailers who rely on repeat purchases over selling lifetime products. The future of the plastic industry in the face of self-mending plastics begs a lot of questions but the impact of self-administered plastic repair is certainly expected to be huge.