Self-healing living materials could mean no more cracked windshields

Imperial College London researchers have been working with engineered living materials (ELMs) designed to take advantage of the ability to heal and replenish material innate in biology. Researchers believe ELMs respond to damage sustained in harsh environments using an integrated system-and-response system. The investigation of this type of material could lead to real-world materials able to detect and heal damage.

Potential real-world applications of the material include windshields able to heal their own cracks, roads that can repair potholes on their own, and aircraft that can heal any damage to their exteriors. The advent of materials able to heal themselves could significantly reduce maintenance in all manner of products used worldwide.

The first of this research happened in the past when researchers created living materials with integrated sensors that detect environmental change. They are taking that old researcher a step further by creating living materials that can detect change and respond to the change by healing themselves. Scientists have demonstrated the design and construction of bacterial cellulose-based materials.

ELMs are created using genetically engineered Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria that produce fluorescent 3D sphere-shaped cultures called spheroids. Project researchers used a hole punch to damage a thick layer of the bacterial cellulose and inserted freshly grown spheroids into the holes.

After a three-day incubation period, the material repaired itself in a manner that was structurally stable, and the consistency and appearance of the material was restored. The next step in the research is to develop spheroid building blocks with different properties and combine them with other materials. Materials researchers hope to combine spheroids with include cotton, graphite, and gelatins. Ultimately, the research may result in all manner of new products from biological filters and implantable electronics to roadways that fix themselves.