Metals That Heal Themselves

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MetalMiner is pleased to have Sheena Moore contribute this post today. Sheena is the full-time Associate Editor at Spend Matters, (MetalMiner’s sister site) and comes to us from a heavy writing, editing, and marketing background. As a print producer at Publicis in the West, Sheena was responsible for creating national and global print campaigns for a variety of large-name clients. She has also worked as a freelance proofreader/copy-editor for clients such as Cole & Weber United, Merkle, and Schawk! Marketing. She now regularly contributes to Spend Matters.

When I was little, I didn’t consider it a good day unless I had learned something new — and most of these self-taught lessons resulted in cuts and scrapes on the good days and stitches and the emergency room on the worst. Quickly realizing that Band-Aids didn’t stand a chance with me, my mom treated the resulting cuts and scrapes with a horrible eyedropper-full of a burning nightmare called “New-Skin, a liquid bandage that dried into a protective skin-like layer, and more importantly, actually held up. I bawled at the time because of the sting, and dreamed of the day that scientists could instantly make skin automatically grow back together in a way that didn’t require needles, numbing, or burning.

Unfortunately, they can’t do this with skin just yet, but researchers have amazingly discovered a way for metals to actually “heal themselves when a minor injury occurs.

According to The Economist, “work by Claudia dos Santos at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, and Christian Mayer at Duisburg-Essen University in Stuttgart…have invented a way for metals to heal themselves. We know that metals are frequently coated with other metals for protection, such as how iron is galvanized with zinc. This new technology is based upon the idea of tiny, fluid-filled capsules that are added to the coating — thus when the metal is scratched or punctured, “the capsules in the damaged area burst and ooze restorative liquids that react with nearby metal atoms to form “tough, protective films a few molecules thick to ameliorate the damage.

The idea has been around for some years, but recent innovation in creating a smaller capsule has made the process actually viable in practice. Other challenges included stabilizing the capsules themselves during the plating process. The capsules stuck together in the “liquids used as electrolytes during electroplating and were also “destroyed by the extreme acidity or alkalinity that often dominates the process, but Dr. dos Santos and Dr. Mayer found a special detergent that stick to the individual capsules’ shell, which keeps them from sticking together and protects them from the harsher chemicals.

This process has been tested on copper, nickel, and zinc, and “self-repairing metals should commonly be available in the years ahead. Now, it’s not stated whether or not this is a permanent fix or just a patch to hold over until a permanent fix can be made, but it’s a fascinating bit of technology that could prove to be extremely helpful as we move forward into metals technology, especially for metals used in marine environments that are difficult to reach and repair. While these molecules aren’t going to be repairing burst pipes any time soon (Gulf Oil Spill, anyone?), the implications are spreading not only for metal skin re-growth, but also into the realm of new types of adhesives as well.

Mostly, though, I’m just glad that metals’ healing process isn’t as traumatic as mine was.

— Sheena Moore

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