Letter | Published:

Autonomic healing of polymer composites

  • An Erratum to this article was published on 14 February 2002

Abstract

Structural polymers are susceptible to damage in the form of cracks, which form deep within the structure where detection is difficult and repair is almost impossible. Cracking leads to mechanical degradation1,2,3 of fibre-reinforced polymer composites; in microelectronic polymeric components it can also lead to electrical failure4. Microcracking induced by thermal and mechanical fatigue is also a long-standing problem in polymer adhesives5. Regardless of the application, once cracks have formed within polymeric materials, the integrity of the structure is significantly compromised. Experiments exploring the concept of self-repair have been previously reported6,7,8, but the only successful crack-healing methods that have been reported so far require some form of manual intervention10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18. Here we report a structural polymeric material with the ability to autonomically heal cracks. The material incorporates a microencapsulated healing agent that is released upon crack intrusion. Polymerization of the healing agent is then triggered by contact with an embedded catalyst, bonding the crack faces. Our fracture experiments yield as much as 75% recovery in toughness, and we expect that our approach will be applicable to other brittle materials systems (including ceramics and glasses).

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Acknowledgements

This work has been sponsored by the University of Illinois Critical Research Initiative Program and the AFOSR Aerospace and Materials Science Directorate. Electron microscopy was carried out in the Center for Microanalysis of Materials, University of Illinois, which is supported by the US Department of Energy.

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Correspondence to S. R. White.

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Further reading

Figure 1: The autonomic healing concept.
Figure 2: Rupture and release of the microencapsulated healing agent.
Figure 3: Chemistry of self-healing.
Figure 4: Self-healing efficiency in an epoxy polymer.

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