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Self-healing phone screens a possibility with new stretchy polymer

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A new self-healing polymer has been developed by a team of US scientists. The material is stretchy, transparent and conductive and could be the perfect candidate material for a self-healing phone screen or battery.

Among the first self-healing plastics was one named the ‘Terminator’, due to its ability to heal in two hours after being cut in half. In 2014, LG launched the G-Flex, a ‘bendy’ phone with a self-healing back coating, on which scratches seemed to disappear.

However, given that these self-healing polymers cannot conduct electricity, they cannot be used as the basis for a self-healing phone screen or battery.

“When I was young, my idol was Wolverine from the X-Men,” says Chao Wang, a member of the team based at the University of California, Riverside, which developed the material. “He could save the world, but only because he could heal himself. A self-healing material, when carved into two parts, can go back together like nothing has happened.”

The key to self-healing materials is in their chemical bonds. While covalent bonds tend to be rigid, noncovalent bonds are weaker and more changeable; the fluid properties of water come from its noncovalent hydrogen bonds constantly breaking and reforming.

The researchers exploited a type of noncovalent bond – an ion-dipole interaction – as the basis for their new material. This is the first time this interaction has been used to create a self-healing polymer.

In order to test that the material was conductive – vital if it were to be used in electronics in the future – the researchers put a non-conductive membrane between two layers of the material to create an ‘artificial muscle’, and applied electrical signals. The muscle responded with movement.

The polymer will be presented at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. Next, the team will work on improving the properties of the polymer by testing it in challenging conditions (such as high humidity) under which other self-healing polymers tend to fail.

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