Smartphone with broken screen on dark background.
April 5, 2017

New polymer could make broken phone screens a thing of the past

Few things in this day and age are as disheartening as seeing your smart phone fall to the ground and witnessing its screen crack or shatter, knowing that you’ll either have to pay to get it repaired or go to the effort of replacing the device entirely. But what if there was another option?

That third option may soon be a reality thanks to researchers from the University of California at Riverside, who have developed a self-healing polymeric material that could one day be used on a smartphone screen, allowing it to repair damage in less than 24 hours, according to reports.

As Business Insider explained, assistant chemistry professor Dr. Chao Wang and his colleagues developed the material from a stretchable polymer and an ionic salt, which are joined together by a special kind of bond called an ion-dipole interaction. This bond, they noted, is a force between ions and polar molecules in which they are attracted to each other in order to fix the damage.

The new material comes from an unlikely inspiration, according to Mashable: comic books. Dr. Wang said that he was a big fan of the X-Men character Wolverine when he was growing up, and in particular, his “healing factor,” which allowed him to overcome any injuries and keep going.

“He could save the world, but only because he could heal himself,” the UCR chemist explained in a statement. “A self-healing material, when carved into two parts, can go back together like nothing has happened, just like our human skin. I've been researching making a self-healing lithium ion battery, so when you drop your cell phone, it could fix itself and last much longer.”

Even if torn in half, polymer can repair itself in 24 hours

When it comes to creating materials, there are two different types of bonds, Dr. Wang said: covalent bonds, which are strong but difficult to reform once broken, and noncovalent bonds, which are weaker but reform far more easily. In most cases, self-healing polymers are created using hydrogen bonds or metal-ligand coordination, the study authors explained.

However, those bonds are poor ionic conductors, they added. So instead, they turned to ion-dipole interaction, a non-covalent bond that had never previously been used in the fabrication of a self-healing polymer but which Dr. Wang said was “particularly suitable for ionic conductors.”

They combined a polar, stretchable polymer with a mobile ionic salt and made a material capable not only of stretching itself up to 50 times its regular size, but also repairing itself in less than 24 hours – even if it is completely torn in half. The findings were presented at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on Tuesday.

Dr. Wang’s team is currently working on improving the properties of the polymer, hoping to be able to make it perform better under more extreme conditions such as high humidity. According to the chemist, previous self-healing polymers have performed poorly in such conditions, but his team hopes that by “tweaking” their materials covalent bonds, they will improve the performance of their material in real-world conditions.

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