Jul 13, 2017 | By David

Smartphone, heal thyself! That could soon be a cry we’ll be hearing all over the world, as a group of researchers from the University of Melbourne is developing a unique self-healing gel for mobile devices.

Even the most nimble-fingered among us will drop our phone at one time or another. But the cracks and other war wounds our phones have to bear until the end of their lives could soon be a thing of the past thanks to this innovative new material, which has been created for 3D printing technology. 

The self-healing gel is a polymer-based substance which has been designed to regenerate itself after damage, much like living tissue does. Known as poly(hydroxyl ethyl methacrylate), it is also the base polymer used for many types of contact lenses, with its regenerative properties making it perfect not only for phones but for any other object that is likely to undergo stress, such as the outer surfaces of cars and other vehicles.

The chemical engineering experts who developed this game-changing material for 3D printing included Melbourne School of Engineering researchers Dr Luke Connal and Dr Zeyun Xiao, and the project was led by PhD student Milena Nadgorny. Their research was published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Molecular Systems Design & Engineering journal. 

According to the paper, "Self-healing materials are capable of recovering from damages and restoring their functionality, just like the natural ability of living creatures to repair their tissues...This unique property offers the ability to extend the lifetime of products, which is usually limited by mechanical failures.”

The healing process they refer to is based on dynamic covalent chemistry: “This means we can form, break, and reform chemical bonds,” Dr Connal explains. “When we can do this in a controlled and triggered manner we can manipulate the properties of the printed objects.”

The self-healing gel could allow phone screens to repair themselves 

The project is an example of so-called "4D printing," a label that has admittedly been applied to a number of different things. In this case it refers to 3D printing technology that makes use of materials that can change their properties over time, factoring in this all-important extra dimension to afford a huge variety of potential applications. 

The 3D printed "smart" objects made from materials like the self-healing gel are capable of reacting to their environment in specific ways, altering their shape and structure according to temperature, humidity, acidity, and a range of other factors.

The gel has a texture similar to toothpaste, but when pressure is applied it can flow like a liquid, as well as being able to form a solid shape. “We have instilled chemistry which is dynamic into this polymer,’’ says Dr Connal. "This means it strengthens the gel, but on a stimulus (for example a change in acidity) we can weaken the gel. And we reverse this – enabling healing of cracks in the material."

These dynamic properties are what allows the material to heal any damage that it might undergo, by simply transforming its fundamental structure. All that would be needed to fix your cracked phone screen, chipped tablet, or dented car door would be some kind of stimulus, such as heat or exposure to humidity.

Although a broken smartphone that could mend itself would be an amazing breakthrough, there are still some challenges that the team is facing in terms of being able to 3D print screens from the gel. A touch-screen is a complex feature, and the researchers need to integrate their technology with the screen’s functional elements as well as the display. However, non-interactive screens or phone cases that can heal themselves are definitely feasible sometime in the near future.

The 3D printable gel could be used in camoflauge technology 

Technology consumers are not the only ones who stand to benefit from this 4D printing innovation. The transformative capabilities of the gel would allow it to not just change its shape, strength, and flexibility, but also its color. This latter function gives it the potential for use as cutting-edge camouflage technology. A soldier fighting in a remote location would be able to 3D print clothing and equipment that can adapt to its surroundings in order to blend in better. This would eliminate the need to carry many different types of material, as the chameleon-like 3D printing gel would effectively be dozens of materials in one.

This might seem like something out of science fiction, and not even good science fiction, but it’s really happening and we wouldn’t blame you for getting carried away. Once a smartphone screen has been made that can fix itself, all bets are off. Dr Connal believes that as his 4D printing technology is developed further, the possibilities will be endless: “There is so much potential to develop new materials for 3D printing’’, he says, ‘’It is a really exciting and rapidly developing area.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Laura Fisher wrote at 7/14/2017 12:57:03 PM:

Thanks David, great article. If anyone wants to read the original paper in Molecular Systems Design & Engineering, here is the link: http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2017/me/c7me00023e#!divAbstract Laura Fisher Deputy Editor, Molecular Systems Design & Engineering

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