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Self-Healing Metal Puts a Bit of Man in the Machine

New nanotech advances point to a future with intelligent metals that repair themselves. Think the Terminator from T2, but less evil and more useful.

A few months back, we wrote about a microcapsule-filled self-healing paint that repairs itself when scratched, putting corrosion fears in check while keeping up a surface’s appearances. Now, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, are getting under the skin, developing a metal coating capable of repairing itself when damaged.

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The 15-micrometers thick coating works much like self-healing paint; when the surface is scratched, tiny embedded capsules burst, releasing a polymer capable of filling any crack in the metal’s surface. The capsules could also release anti-corrosives that keep damage confined to the superficial, or various other liquid solutions that perform various restorative or damage-controlling tasks.

The applications for the technology are vast. The self-healing metal can be electroplated–a process that actually fuses a thin layer of metal atop an existing piece of metal–making the protective/restorative layer part of the original rather than merely a topical coating. This technological first opens up opportunities in various spaces, including car manufacturing, construction, and pretty much any industry that manufactures steel machinery.

Once the process is perfected, self-healing isn’t the only avenue the technology can take. For instance, ball bearings could be wrapped in capsules filled with lubricants that would burst when the bearing begins to wear, or airplane siding could be coated with capsules filled with colored liquids or scented oils that alert crew on the ground if a section of a fuselage is stressed.

The next step for the technology is developing the proper chemistries that show how ranges of materials can actually repair themselves. After that, the possibilities really start to become endless: Car parts that resist corrosion, building materials that release a scent (or change colors) when weakened while patching small stress cracks themselves, and machine parts that self lubricate to extend the life of the machine. Hey, maybe this should be what we do with all those clunkers being turned in for cash…

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[via Technology Review]

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