In the Future, Planes Could be Made with Self-Healing Materials

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Tiny cracks, the kind that you can't readily see, are big problems for planes. A scratch on the wing may go unnoticed for too long and eventually present a serious problem at the most inopportune time. To avoid the potentially catastrophic effects, researchers at the University of Bristol are working on a material for airplane wings that would "self heal."

The process works by embedding tiny spheres of liquid in the material used to make the wing. In the event of a scratch, those spheres would burst, releasing a carbon-based substance that would react with catalysts—also built into the wing material—to harden and seal the crack. The process is similar to what happens when you get a scratch on your body: blood pools into the wound and hardens into a scab to seal off the damage from your environment.

"Composite materials are increasingly used in modern airlines, military aircraft, and wind turbines. They are very stiff and strong but very light," researcher Duncan Wass told the BBC of existing airplane material. "That's perfect for aerospace...but the problem is if they are damaged, they are difficult to protect and repair. Our technology would enable you to maybe extend the maintenance schedule or use less material without compromising safety."

The repaired wing will be just as sturdy as the undamaged original, and the scientists predict the self-healing model will be introduced in the next five to 10 years.

While the researchers are focused on airplanes for now, once the technology is perfected and made more cheaply available, the applications are vast: Cars that don't scratch, cellphone screens that don't crack, offshore wind turbines that don't need as much costly maintenance. (Scientists are already working on self-healing concrete.)

"Basically, any industry which uses carbon fiber composites could benefit," Wass told Forbes. "At the consumer end of the market that could be sports equipment, bike frames, and so on."