An image sequence demonstrating the regeneration of self-repairing material within a puncture.

An image sequence demonstrating the regeneration of self-repairing material within a puncture.

Credit: Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois

Self-healing materials have made recent headlines for their remarkable ability to emulate the restorative capacities of human skin. Much of that innovation has been around the ability to repair tiny fractures and fissures—until now. In May, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced the development of a polymer that is designed not only to heal, but also to regenerate.

What is the difference? While healing refers to the repair of small, internal cracks, regeneration deals with the restoration of large breaks or openings. Continuing with the skin analogy, the former is akin to a small cut or scrape while the latter is like a large wound or a missing piece of flesh.

"For the first time, we’ve shown that you can regenerate lost material in a structural polymer. That’s the kicker here,” said the research team's leader, Scott White, who's also a mechanical engineer and a professor in the university's aerospace engineering department, in a press release. "Prior to this work, if you cut off a piece of material, it’s gone. Now we’ve shown that the material can actually re-grow.”

White and his team emulated detailed biological models to incorporate synthetic, parallel capillaries within the new material. In the event of a large fissure or puncture, the capillaries release two complementary liquids that together form a regenerative gel—mimicking the blood-clotting phenomenon seen in zoological organisms. The gel fills the damaged area, eventually hardening into a polymer that is structurally compatible with the surrounding material. 

White envisions that this vascular-delivery healing process will have applications in automotive, aerospace, and other mechanically intensive industries. Once it is more affordable, the technology could also be beneficial for products in high-abuse architectural settings such as building entrances, loading docks, primary circulation spaces, and envelopes subject to extreme weather. The result could be a building panel, floor tile, or corner guard that not only repairs its own small cracks, but also replaces entire pieces of damaged self.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.