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Self-healing polymeric material developed by US army and Texas A&M researchers

Self-healing material holds potential for reconfigurable robots

Image credit: Texas A&M University

US Army and Texas A&M University researchers have developed a one-of-a-kind material which changes shape autonomously, opening the possibility of unprecedented Terminator-like reconfigurability in military robots.

The engineers were inspired to create the material when they noticed the surfaces of a material they were developing for a different application became active and easily adhered to itself. This inspired them to investigate its self-healing capabilities.

The novel material is polymeric (made up of polymer chains of repeating units). In soft polymers these chains are only weakly connected to each other through crosslinks; the more crosslinks between chains, the more rigid the material becomes, with most crosslinked materials having fixed forms.

However, this new material has a dynamic bond which allows it to transition between liquid and solid states multiple times, so it can be 3D printed and recycled. These bonds also introduce unique shape memory behaviour, meaning that the material can be “programmed” and triggered to heal through the return to a previous shape.

The flexibility introduced to the polymer chain allows for unprecedented control over its properties, allowing scientists to set it to the softness of rubber or the strength of load-bearing plastics.

As work on the material progresses, the researchers hope to expand the reconfigurability of the material and develop an “embedded intelligence” such that it can autonomously adapt to its environment without external control. Currently, the material responds to temperature (which is easy to control within a laboratory setting) and light.

Next, the engineers hope to enhance actuation behaviour and healing and introduce multi-responsiveness such that the material can respond to stimuli other than temperature and light.

“We want a system of materials to simultaneously provide structure, sensing and response,” said aerospace engineer Dr Frank Gardea, who is leading the project.

In the future, materials of this sort could enable massive reconfigurability in military platforms, opening up new possibilities for morphing drones and robots comparable to the T-1000 robot in the Terminator film franchise.

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