Synthetic Self-Healing Plastic Skin Is Sensitive To Your Touch

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

You guys know Plastic Man, right? He’s the goofy DC superhero that was supposed to be made into a movie by the Wachowskis. Call me Useless Non-Poetic Nostradamus, but I’m thinking if Stanford Chemical Engineering Professor Zhenan Bao and her team are as successful with their work as they have been, perhaps a Plastic Man film wouldn’t completely rely on CGI for its main character. Perhaps there will soon be a real Plastic Man, whose synthetic skin is capable of healing himself and being sensitive to touch. Okay, so regular men can do that, but this does it better. So nyeah.

The team attached tiny nickel particles to a plastic made up of chains of hydrogen-bonded molecules, creating a bendable polymer made up of nickel-plated molecules that reconnect after being broken. (There’s major information condensing in that sentence, readers.) The problems with previous versions of synthetic skins both involved the healing process: some needed impractically high temperatures to do the task, while others would only see one-time use due to changes in chemical or mechanical properties in order to do it at room temperature. And then there’s the part I learned in grade school: plastics are shite heat conductors, which wouldn’t bode well for any electronic use.

The resulting product is rather astonishing. The team cut a thin strip of the material in half, and a few seconds after the two pieces were placed back together, the material had reconnected and gained back 75 percent of its original strength, and was back to 100 percent within about 30 minutes. Look at those scars you have on your body, especially the freaky ones. Remember how long those took to heal? Mostly because you kept pulling the scab back, but still. The sample remained as good as new even after 50 further cuts and restorations to the same spot. And for the blissfully optimistic, Bao and the other researchers realized the nickel, while key to the conductivity, was actually preventing the hydrogen bonds from connecting as quickly as they should. In the future, Bao may plan to either adjust the size and shape of the nickel nanoparticles, or adjust the chemical properties of the plastic. But like a beautiful painting without a frame, the truly worthy accomplishment has been made.

As if man-made starfish creatures weren’t enough, due to the bonding nature necessary for the healing process, any electrical current put through the material follows the same route, only able to connect to the next nickel particle as easily as it can. So if you bend the material and change the way the electrons travel, you’ve created information that can be used as digital pressure and tension sensors. Any pressure applied registers a reading, so it could one day be ideal for prosthetic limb replacement. Or at the very least, a Nintendo peripheral.

Bao and her team aren’t stopping at regenerating stress balls taking over the planet. Other positive (moneymaking) uses are wire-coatings, able to fix themselves if damaged, which would also help save money, to contrast my parenthetical. Imagine a New York building where the lights didn’t flicker because of the rats in the walls, because all of the wiring in the building was coated with this material. Or even the HDMI cable you sliced open when you were trying to cut through the packaging. And to truly make it an invention of the 21st century, the team’s goal is to make the material stretchy and transparent, to stretch around electronic devices and display screens. Then you will rule Hyrule with a product that is more immortal than you are.

And because it’s the Monday after a great weekend of football, I picture going to a store and finding this material used in the form of a hated team rival, so that one may stab it during a match-up, or when one is just feeling stabby in general. It doesn’t need to be any actual human players. It could be a mascot. I’m just saying, this is where it’s going. And Halloween make-up.

All of this handy information, minus the non-professionalism, can be found in this month’s Nature Nanotechnology.

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