We Live in the Future: Use This Polymer If You Want To Live

terminator polymer diagram

The short version of this article is that for those of us (myself shamefully included) with body damage on our cars that we’re going to have to drop a ton of money to fix, it turns out we may not be far away from plastics that would be able to heal themselves after damage. The long version is under the cut.

Come With Me If You Want To Live

My ’09 Toyota Matrix has had a gouge in the side of it for two years now. It had an unfortunate run-in with the bumper of an ill-steered U-Haul outside my apartment in Los Angeles, and since then it has been held together by a number of things. Most successfully, I applied cold weld to it at 6.30am on the side of I-70 in the Utah desert about two years ago and covered it with a bandage of duct tape. The cold weld apparently wore off, and now it’s just liberal use of duct tape versus the world.

None of this would have been a problem if my car’s body was made out of a rigid, self-healing polymer.

The most recent breakthrough in self-healing thermoset polymers happened just this week, with the breakthrough being that it was actually self-healing. Most polymers to date that have been billed as self-healing required an external energy source to zap them back into shape, something like heat, light or a change in pH balance. This new polymer will heal itself at room temperature to just about as strong as it was before being… wounded? Is that the right terminology?

And since it’s sort of cool and a sciencey thing that heals itself, the doctors who discovered it have nicknamed it the “Terminator” polymer, because of course they have. If you need me to explain why they named it after the T-1000 Terminator model from Terminator: Judgment Day, I’m going to assume you never saw the movie, so go to Redbox and get it before you read the rest of this article.

I’ll wait.

Okay I’m Done Waiting

Since you’ve seen the film now, you’re familiar with Robert Patric’s character, the T-1000 Terminator, who is chasing after a teenage-dip of a kid named John Connor, who is destined to become humanity’s savior in the war against the machines after Skynet becomes self-aware in 1997. The whole thing is sort of a “if you could go back in time and kill Baby-Hitler, would you do it?” and the machines, viewing John Connor as their Baby-Hitler, answered in the affirmative. The T-1000 was a self-healing machine made out of liquid metal. The analogy’s not perfect, but the minute this self-healing plastic starts holding up pictures of Edward Furlong and asking “have you seen this boy?” I am 1000% out.

But Enough About Terminator

Ibon Odriozola and his team at the CIDETEC (acronyms!) Centre for Electrical Technologies in Spain,have been working on this sort of polymer for a number of years. Their previous model was made with self-healing silicone elastomers and cross-linkers made out of silver nanoparticles. The downsides were that an external pressure was required and the silver components were expensive to the  point of prohibiting commercialization. I mean, unless there’s a consumer market out there for people who want their car to be put together with silver, mostly for bragging rights and going to fancy parties and drinking expensive brandies while the Jazz Age collapses about their shoulders in ruins.

I am all over the pop culture map this week.

Anyway, their end-result polymer is “an industrially familiar, permanently cross-linked poly(urea-urethane) elastomeric network [that] was demonstrated to completely mend itself after being cut in tow by a razor blade. It is the metathesis reaction of aromatic disulfides, which naturally exchange at room temperature, that causes regeneration.” To unpack that a little bit, a metathesis in chemsistry is “a bimolecular process involving the exchange of bonds between two reacting chemical species” and disulfide bonds are the “crosslinking groups that result from the vulcanization of rubber,” which, if I’m being honest, doesn’t clear much up about disulfide bonds for me.

So How Does One Use This Miracle Polymer?

That has yet to be seen. The nitty-gritty is that the polymer acts as a “velcro-like sealant or adhesive, displaying an impressive 97% healing efficiency in just two hours and does not break when stretched manually,” as you can see in the image at the top of the article.

According to David Mecerreyes, a polymer chemistry specialist at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, the leading opportunities for this elastomer (polymer, plastic, elastomer… this compound has some identity issues) are to improve security and duration for plastic parts in cars, houses, electrical components and biomaterials. In the future, Odriozola’s group intends to concentrate on a stronger polymeric material, since the composite they’ve been using is relatively soft.

Does This Mean Our Cars Will Be Invincible?

As a non-scientist, my answer to that is… Maybe?

This is still in the very, very, very embryonic stages of development. They JUST figured out how to make a self-healing polymer, and it’s still pretty soft. It looks sort of like string cheese that puts itself back together (which would make eating string cheese a much more Sisyphean task). Before it has any practical application in transportation, it will have to gain the ability to become much more rigid than it can currently.

However, once we achieve a polymer that is sufficiently rigid, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to use it to build car exteriors. You get in a fender bender? Boom: it molds back to its previous shape. You knock your mirror off? No problem, leave the super glue out of it. Just hold that bad boy in place and it’ll re-adhere. One day, in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, I see a world where we can 3D print whatever we like using this specific polymer. These things will never break. Or if they do, they will heal, and scar. It’ll be sort of unsettling to see inanimate objects with literal scars, but still. How rad would that be?

Okay This Had to Get Included

It’s got some great T1000 as a liquid, self-healing metal man moments. You should check it out.

h/t to ScienceDaily.com’s article about the Terminator Polymer

About Nick Philpott

Nick Philpott is the Chief Storyteller at Lebanon Ford. He believes that every vehicle and driver has a unique story to share. You can contact him directly at (513) 932-1010 or nphilpott@lebanon-ford.com.