Taking inspiration from his favourite comic book character, the X-Men's Wolverine whose ability is that of almost instantly healing from any wound, Professor Chao Wang came up with the idea of developing a material with surprising properties: a new polymer that is able to heal itself.
The polymer in question has several healing properties. It can be stretched up to 50 times its original size, and it can also "suture" itself to re-attach two ripped pieces, and can regenerate within 24 hours.
Chao Wang, one of the researchers working on the project at the University of California, Riverside, explained that "this polymer reacts in much the same way as human skin, and is able to repair a cut as if nothing had happened”. Like water molecules which can recombine after being "broken", the polymer is able to return to its original shape.
In fact, it behaves even better than previously-discovered materials with similar properties: it is the first to conduct electricity and therefore to be able to be used to manufacture screens, or even to extend the lives of Smartphone batteries.
The team of researchers believe that there are many possible applications for the material: "sensors, energy storage, creation of artificial muscles for robotics, and more".
However, those days are still some time away.
For now, the polymer has to be tested in difficult situations, such as extreme humidity: "The properties of this type of polymer can be altered in highly humid environments", explained Professor Chao Wang. "Water infiltrates the material and affects its capabilities. (…) We are currently making adjustments aimed at enabling us to use it in real life". If all goes well, the first commercial applications making use of the self-healing polymer should appear in three years' time.