But what if you scratch the screen on your cell phone, or scrape your car up against something and put a long scratch on the fender?
In the future, that may be no problem either, once the technological breakthroughs made at a Clemson University lab find their way onto the market.
Marek Urban, who holds the J.E. Sirrine Endowed Chair in materials science and engineering at Clemson, is doing research that promises to endow inanimate objects with life-mimicking healing abilities.
And the possibilities are nearly limitless.
Beyond paint and plastics are potential applications such as self-healing cloth, military vehicles that patch their own bullet holes and hip replacements that could repair themselves. Or fingernail polish that lasts longer, something a cosmetics company has contacted Urban about.
And the latest permutation in the works: adding the ability to keep iron from corroding, which could mean self-repairing bridges and other structures made of steel.
It’s not just in the coatings, like in paint, where the self-healing process can be incorporated, but it can be infused into the materials that go to make a product, like the artificial joints used in hip replacements.
The secret ingredient in the healing process – sugar.
Sugar, or glucose, “provides sufficient chemistry at this broken interface to allow the materials to stitch together.”
“It’s a baby step in going towards more living synthetic materials.”
In other words, it’s almost like the way cut skin heals, with the same type of chemical reactions occurring.
“So in a way it’s a living system, but it’s certainly a very primitive living system at this point,” Urban said.
The building blocks of the process are polymers, long chains of molecules that are “stitched together like beads on a necklace,” he said.
Those extremely versatile materials can be either laced together to form a strong network or melted into a desired shape. The use of sugar, which makes Urban’s process different from work done by other scientists, facilitates the sewing up of breakages in the molecular chains.
The work goes on in the labs at Clemson’s Advanced Materials Research Lab near Pendleton.
There, graduate student Ying Yang mixes various formulations of chemicals to test in another lab equipped with special microscopes that allow researchers to see color-coded images that show which chemicals are reacting to facilitate the healing process.
Urban gets most of his funding from the U.S. Army, but he also receives support from the National Science Foundation, and has had calls from a variety of industries around the world interested in the technology.
The idea is not to build factories to produce self-healing materials but to tweak existing factories to allow the new materials to be incorporated into the manufacturing process.
“There’s a lot of money to be made if someone does it right,” he said.
But the military will have the first shot at applying his research.
The technology is being tested at the Department of Defense’s Corrosion Prevention and Control Program.
A polyurethane coating incorporating additives that enable the self-repairing mechanisms is being applied to large hangar doors at the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas.
“Corrosion of infrastructure and equipment costs the military millions of dollars each year,” said Richard Lampo, a materials engineer with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center.
“Coatings are the first line of defense against corrosion, and a coating that repairs itself when damaged, thus maintaining a barrier to the effects of corrosion, could potentially equate to significant cost savings while maintaining a high level of mission readiness.”
Rajendra K. Bordia, chair of Clemson’s materials science and engineering, called Urban “a pioneer in the area of stimuli-responsive and self-healing polymers.”
Urban is also passionate about inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists, Bordia said.
“The students and post-doctoral researchers who work with Marek are learning about the kind of cutting-edge technology that will help keep South Carolina and the nation competitive,” Bordia said. “Their brain power will help fuel the 21st century economy.”