Smart, Self-Healing Hydrogels
A smart, self-healing hydrogel developed at UC San Diego is made of linked chains of polymer molecules that are similar to the soft tissues of the body. "Dangling side chain" molecules add the capability of self-repair when the body of the hydrogel is cut or damaged.
(Smart, self-healing hydrogels)
"Self-healing is one of the most fundamental properties of living tissues that allows them to sustain repeated damage," says Varghese. "Being bioengineers, one question that repeatedly appeared before us was if one could mimic self-healing in synthetic, tissue-like materials such as hydrogels. The benefits of creating such an aqueous self-healing material would be far-reaching in medicine and engineering."
To design the side chain molecules of the hydrogel that would enable rapid self-healing, Varghese and her collaborators performed computer simulations of the hydrogel network. The simulations revealed that the ability of the hydrogel to self-heal depended critically on the length of the side chain molecules, or fingers, and that hydrogels having an optimal length of side chain molecules exhibited the strongest self-healing. When two cylindrical pieces of gels featuring these optimized fingers were placed together in an acidic solution, they stuck together instantly. Varghese's lab further found that by simply adjusting the solution's pH levels up or down, the pieces weld (low pH) and separate (high pH) very easily. The process was successfully repeated numerous times without any reduction in the weld strength.
Self-healing materials have a long history in science fiction; in his 1951 story Asteroid of Fear, sf great Raymond Z. Gallun, we encounter a unique plastic that can repair itself:
But the wide roof was all the way up, now—intact. It made a great, squarish bubble, the skin of which [a 'transparent, wire-strengthened plastic '] was specially treated to stop the hard and dangerous part of the ultra-violet rays of the sun, and also the lethal portion of the cosmic rays. It even had an inter-skin layer of gum that could seal the punctures that grain-of-sand-sized meteors might make.
(Read more about self-healing plastic)
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