There are a lot of differences between organic and inorganic objects, but one that we're going to focus on today is that living things are self-healing and inorganic objects aren't. If you've ever cracked your phone screen, you might wish it would heal itself, but you know you have to get a new screen.
The same goes for broken toys, furniture, cars and up to airplanes. You usually have to replace what's broken. Even if you fix it, it's often left weaker and will break again.
When it's a small, cheap object, replacing it isn't a problem. But when you're talking about airplane wings, crash helmets and expensive smartphones, it's a completely different story.
That's why scientists have been working on ways to give inorganic objects the ability to heal. Self-healing plastic has been around since 2001, and last year scientists came up with a self-healing polymer. That's great, but researchers at the University of Bristol have just cracked (pun intended) the biggest advance yet.
The researchers have managed to make self-healing carbon fiber. This is the lightweight material used in airplane wings, high-end car bodies, helmets, bike frames, tennis rackets, golf clubs and a growing list of other items that need high strength with low weight.
To make it self-healing, the researchers included "microspheres" that contain a "liquid healing agent." When the carbon fiber is cracked, the spheres release the healing agent, which then seeps into the crack.
Once it encounters a catalyst, the healing agent hardens, making the carbon as strong as it was before it cracked. The researchers got the idea from the way human skin heals itself.
The healing process takes anywhere from a few hours to a day, depending on the environment. In the case of airplane wings, the researchers are considering adding color to the healing agent so it shows up like a "bruise" on the wing.
This would help plane mechanics see where the wing has been healed and make sure everything is OK. Of course, there would be a drawback. Speaking to the Independent, Professor Duncan Wass had this practical suggestion to allay the fears of nervous fliers: “We’d probably do it with something which is invisible to the naked eye that you’d need to put an ultraviolet light on, because you don’t want an aeroplane wing with a big red splodge on it showing that it’s been damaged.”
Similar technology to this could also lead to future smartphone screens that heal themselves. Cosmetics firm L'Oreal is also looking into self-healing nail polish.