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Smart Materials Gain Ground

Ever heard of truck bodies that heal their own scratches and dings? Or roads and bridges that tell you when they need to be repaired? If you think such concepts are still in the realm of wishful thinking, think again. So called ‘smart materials’ have made serious technological leaps in recent years and may have a huge impact in the way everything from toasters to trucks are designed, built, and used in the future.

Recently, researchers at the University of Illinois and University of Delaware have been fine-tuning a process whereby composite materials – such as fiberglass – can actually repair themselves. In a story first reported by The Washington Post , these researchers have developed a process to create millions of resin-filled capsules that can be stored within a fiberglass car or truck body.

These capsules, called monomers, break open when punctured by a crack or dent in the fiberglass surface, The capsules release liquids that react with catalysts embedded within the fiberglass and convert the liquid into a polymer material, which then solidifies and heals the crack, ding, or other abrasion.

Though still in the experimental stages, such self-healing materials could dramatically reduce repair costs for certain kinds of car and truck bodies over time, and should keep the exterior looking new.

The concept of such smart materials, however, isn’t new. In 1996, Scientific America reported on efforts to embed a variety of advanced technologies within everyday materials, such as roads, bridges and tires, to make them able to feed valuable information back to users.

Case Western Reserve University, for example, embedded silicon pressure sensors into tires to improve fuel economy and reduce wear. Army researchers placed what are called ‘piezoelectric crystals’ inside helicopter rotor blades, which produce a feedback response intended to reduce the vibration and noise inside the cockpit. Kent State University touted a new kind of liquid crystal display (LCD) technology to give LCD flat color display panels better resolution at lower cost, while also consuming far less battery power.

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