Self-Healing Material ‘Grows’ like a Plant with Carbon Dioxide and Light

23 October 2018

Researchers from MIT have produced a new polymer that is able to heal itself by ‘growing’ in a way similar to plants using only carbon dioxide and light.

While the discovery needs further development before it can be used outside of the lab, there is wide-spread potential for a self-healing material, for example in the construction, fabric, and coatings industries.

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As the MIT website explains, “The current version of the new material is a synthetic gel-like substance that performs a chemical process similar to the way plants incorporate carbon dioxide from the air into their growing tissues. The material might, for example, be made into panels of a lightweight matrix that could be shipped to a construction site, where they would harden and solidify just from exposure to air and sunlight, thereby saving on the energy and cost of transportation.”

The discovery is a first in chemical engineering and has created a whole new branch of material science that allows for substances to ‘grow’. As Professor Michael Strano, who led the study alongside nine of his colleagues at MIT and the University of California, described, “This is a completely new concept in materials science. [Outside of biology] What we call carbon-fixing materials don’t exist yet.”

The researchers have now published their findings in the journal Advance Materials, where they announce the discovery of, “a gel matrix containing aminopropyl methacrylamide (APMA), glucose oxidase (GOx), and nanoceria‐stabilized extracted chloroplasts that is able to grow, strengthen, and self‐repair using carbon fixation.”

They continue by explaining that, “Glucose produced from the embedded chloroplasts is converted to gluconolactone (GL) via GOx, polymerizing with APMA to form a continuously expanding and strengthening polymethacrylamide.”

This discovery is made clearer via this pictorial representation of the new material’s self-healing properties.

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A crack is created in the material, which is composed of a hydrogel (dark green) with plant-derived chloroplasts (light green) embedded in it.

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In the presence of light, the material reacts with carbon dioxide in the air to expand and fill the gap, repairing the damage.

But while the science is highly technical and has yet to be applied in a real-world setting, the environmental advantages of the new material are evident. Not only have the team created a synthetic material that does not require fossil fuels as a raw material, but a synthetic material that improves the surrounding environment by absorbing carbon dioxide.

As Strano says, “Imagine a synthetic material that could grow like trees, taking the carbon from the carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the material’s backbone.”

In fact, the discovery is part of a new strain of thinking that is beginning to see carbon dioxide as a useful chemical feedstock rather than simply a waste product or pollutant. As such, carbon fixation could become a breakthrough tool in the circular economy.

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“Our work shows that carbon dioxide need not be purely a burden and a cost. It is also an opportunity.” Explains Strano, “There’s carbon everywhere. We build the world with carbon. Humans are made of carbon. Making a material that can access the abundant carbon all around us is a significant opportunity for materials science. In this way, our work is about making materials that are not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.”

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Photo credit: MIT, ChemistryExplained, Lego, & EPPM