Up until recently, the phrase “everything but water” may have referred to nothing more than a high end boutique for women’s swimwear. But now, thanks to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, it can also serve as the tag line for a new kind of self-healing plastic, inspired by the teeth of squids. While we may be may only be familiar with the grilled or fried versions of the cephalopods, scientists have long been studying their phenomenally strong ring teeth, which have the particularly intriguing capacity to self-heal when in contact with water. Now, as per findings published in Nature, the Pennsylvania based team has realized the genetic code that allows for this unique ability, and engineered lab produced proteins that are needed to complete the process.
These proteins were then turned into a plastic by combining them with a solvent, then allowing the solvent to evaporate, leaving behind nothing more than a sort, rubbery material that scientists shaped into a dog bone. To test its self-healing properties, researchers cut the bone in half, then quite literally, just added water. They pressed the two pieces together and found that a drop of water, a bit of pressure, and 113 degrees Fahrenheit was all it took to repair the material.
Melik Demirel, professor of engineering science and mechanics, noted that this latest discovery is novel in its use of water as the self-healing secret ingredient. “There are other materials that are self-healing, but not with water,” Demirel said. And given this quality, scientists anticipate that such a plastic could have a number of useful applications across industries.
Because the auto-repaired material proved just as strong as its original version, researchers are optimistic about its potential use in biomedical devices or deep sea cables, both of which are often difficult to fix. Continued Demirel, “If one of the fiber-optic cables under the ocean breaks, the only way to fix it is to replace it. With this material, it would be possible to heal the cable and go on with operation, saving time and money.”
While the plastic hasn’t undergone sufficient testing to release it for commercial use, this certainly serves as a promising start. Demirel concluded, “Maybe someday we could apply this approach to healing of wounds or other applications. It would be interesting in the long run to see if we could promote wound healing this way, so that is where I’m going to focus now.”
Who knew squid could be so useful?