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Made in India Magazine | January 23, 2021

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Himanshu Yadav


Self-healing is one of the core capabilities of science fiction superheroes, most notably Wolverine of X-Men fame. Now, scientists have managed to create an artificial material that not only stretches to almost fifty times its usual length, but also heals itself automatically after being cut by a pair of scissors. Read on to find out more.

Wolverine, perhaps the most popular of the X-Men, has self-healing properties that makes him virtually unbeatable in battle. Now, science may finally be just about catching up with science fiction, as scientists announce the successful creation of a transparent ionic conductor that is self-healing.

The material can heal itself from a scissor cut within twenty four hours at room temperature. This is not quite Wolverine’s speed, admittedly, but it’s definitely a start.

Researchers have been able to create ionic conductors before – it means materials that can conduct electricity by movement of ions – but creating one with self-healing properties has proven to be elusive. This requires non-covalent bonds between individual molecules that do not share electrons, and when electricity passes through these bonds, they get degraded, so the healing is not of high quality.

University of California researcher Chao Wang and his colleagues used ion-dipole interactions to hold the molecules together. This means that the polar molecules carry a slight electrical imbalance within them, which gives rise to electrostatic attraction between them. As a result, the final material is stretchable to almost fifty times its length, and when a scissor cut is made, the material constricts, forms new bonds and becomes whole again.

Wang and his team placed a transparent membrane between two layers of the new material to produce an artificial muscle prototype. This artificial muscle is activated by electrical signals the same way a human muscle responds to brain signals. This carries profound implications to the future of prosthetic muscles and artificial intelligence.

Self-healing electrical conductors find applications in improving the quality of power sources and machines. There are also many possible applications in space travel. Robotics is also a prime target, with the material giving a robot the ability to heal after sustaining mechanical damage, and thus stretch the lifetime of not only its physical materials but also its electronic components. This material can also potentially increase the lifetime of lithium ion batteries that are used in electric cars.

The full spectrum of applications where this material will come of use will only be fully appreciated with time, as more and more improvements make it commercially viable and available.

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