Welcome to the future, where your phone can fix its own smashed screen
From self-healing phone screens to concrete that repairs itself, businesses are investing in futuristic materials. But can it curb our throwaway habits?
Smashed screens, broken circuits, water damaged keyboards – we send millions of tonnes of broken electronics to the dump every year. But what if our phones and laptops could fix themselves?
This month, it emerged that smartphone company Motorola had filed a patent for a self-healing phone display. The design includes a “shape memory polymer”, which the patent application says would at least partly reverse damage when exposed to heat. In theory, at least, users could hit a “repair” button and wait for their cracked screens to mend.
Other tech giants are at it too. Samsung, for example, has been sponsoring research into self-healing materials, including a Stanford project to design a polymer that can repair itself if punctured.
As futuristic as they sound, self-healing materials are not a new idea. Researchers have been working on concrete that can repair its own cracks for years, and have developed a variety of techniques, such as embedding tiny capsules containing healing agents in the concrete, which would be triggered when cracks appear.
As the range of possible applications for self-healing materials has expanded, so too has interest from industry and academia, with proponents excited by a development they believe could save money while helping to curb our throwaway habits.
Researcher Cai Liheng is part of a team at Harvard University that has just patented a new kind of self-healing rubber. Rather than cracking when excess force is applied, the material, which incorporates reversible polymer bonds, will return to its original form when the stress is released, he says.
The breakthrough could eventually lead to tyres that last forever, says Cai, but the material has a wide range of other potential uses too. Rubber is also used for medical implants and in automotive supplies, among other applications. “Think about it – anywhere we use rubber, it could still have the mechanical properties of old rubber but can also self-heal. That would result in huge environmental benefits.”