Many of us know all too well the frustration that comes of buying a shiny new gadget, only to see it smashed into a thousand pieces soon after.
But a new family of plastics offer insurance against these disasters, through unique properties that allow them to be reformed after being broken apart. Just add heat and a chemical catalyst, and watch the damage melt away.
Vitrimers are the brainchild of Ludwik Liebler, a materials scientist at the ESCPI Institute in Paris, the school made famous by Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactivity.
Liebler’s work has earned him the 2015 Inventor Award in the research category from the EPO (European Patent Office), and is expected to have a wide-ranging and transformative impact.
“We think that the first applications will be in transport, in cars, in planes, in all the applications you have that need toughness, for repair and increasing durability of your objects,” says Liebler, who was inspired by the shape-shifting ways of the T-1000 in ‘Terminator 2.’
Vitrimers combine the two existing families of plastics. Thermoplastics are malleable when heated but become fixed in a solid shape when cooled, and cannot be reformed. Thermosets are rigid and retain their form even when heated. Vitrimers retain their form when heated, but can be reconstituted infinite times.
“The vitrimers can have both of the two worlds, but they are fundamentally different,” says Liebler.
“They combine this permanent network, resistance, dimensional stability with the possibility of being malleable, (and) completely recyclable.”
The scientist describes the field as a “young family” with almost limitless applications, which could come to render the existing plastics obsolete.
One intriguing possibility is the use of vitrimers to treat injuries and accelerate healing.
“It seems to work, at least in animals,” claims Liebler. “We made this experience with gluing liver, which you can buy, and then we made experiments with colleagues in the hospital on liver in rats and it works, and we had a surgery on pigs and it works.”
But the priority is to set the new technology loose in manufacturing and create a new generation of products. With research ongoing, it is not clear when these will hit the shelves, but in time users will be able to either heat their devices back to health, or healing will occur automatically.
The field of self-healing is teeming with possibilities. From fellow EPO nominee Hendrik Marius Jonkers’ concept for regenerating concrete, to the University of Illinois’ ’blood clots,’ and airplane wings that repair themselves, materials are being given a second chance.
Until then, keep your phone where you can see it.