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Self-repairing gel: Healing for damaged smart phone screens

Sabine Berger Autorin, Hemd & Hoodie

Thanks to the “self-healing” capabilities of an innovative gel, cracks in smart phone screens may soon be a thing of the past.

It seems to be the curse of modern mobile technology that the more expensive a device is, the sooner it falls victim to gravity — resulting in a broken screen. Anyone who has not yet encountered this for themselves will surely know someone who is familiar with the unloved “Spiderman app”. However, an alternative to expensive screen repairs may soon be available.

A team of scientists from the University of Melbourne has developed a 3D printed gel that is able to change form and can even self-repair damage. Dr. Luke Connal from the Melbourne School of Engineering is convinced that 3D printing will revolutionize industrial manufacturing. Until now, however, there has been a lack in particular of materials suitable for producing truly innovative products, says the chemist.

Gel self-repairs damage

It is for this reason that Connal and his team are working on a polymer-based material called 2-hydroxyethylmethacrylate (HEMA), which is used for a variety of applications including contact lenses and false nails. The gel-like substance has a range of properties which are particularly suitable for 3D printing. During the printing process, the material has the viscous consistency of toothpaste. But once printing is complete and the force applied has lessened, its stability increases.

When the toothpaste-like gel is subjected to the correct stimulus, it heals itself of cracks and fractures. Image: Pursuit – The University of Melbourne

However, the real innovation is that the polymer—which is similar to organic structures such as our skin—is able to regenerate after sustaining a small amount of damage. This self-healing process is a result of the covalent bonds between individual atoms; the bonds can be broken down and then reformed. In their publication, the researchers confirmed that in 98 percent of test cases, the printed objects were able to self-repair damage such as cracks and fractures and return to their original shape.

Improved protection for expensive devices

Three-dimensional objects of this kind that change form over time could have a wide variety of applications in the future. Connal and his team think that the self-repairing gel has huge potential for protection of high-end products that are subject to heavy usage, for example smart phones, tablets and surfaces on cars. “The service life of products could be significantly extended by coating them with this material,” says Connal.

One day, it may even be possible to produce the self-healing gel at home with 3D printers, and apply it to appropriate screens. Image: Flickr – Patrick Hoesley

In the future, mobile device displays could even be manufactured entirely from the gel and be able to self-repair if heat or moisture is applied. The greatest challenge with this, however, is to ensure that the displays’ touchscreen capability is maintained. As this is now an essential feature for both manufacturers and end users, Connal and his colleagues are planning to focus on the development of self-healing coatings — something which is sure to please any smart phone user.

Cover photo: Flickr – Ashwin Kumar

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