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Researchers honored for work with self-healing plastics

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Professors Scott White and Nancy Sottos, Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR)-funded scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have been awarded several recent honors for their breakthrough research in self-healing plastics.

In January 2008, they were included in the 2007 SciAm 50, an awards list that appears in Scientific American magazine each year. It recognizes 50 individuals, teams, companies and other organizations whose accomplishments demonstrate outstanding technological leadership.

The team led by White and Sottos was also featured in NASA's top seven technologies in an article titled, "2007: A Year in Technology."

Dr. Byung-Lip Lee and Dr. Hugh DeLong, joint AFOSR program managers for the research program, are proud of the team's work. "Each time an AFOSR-funded program earns such honors, it helps elevate public perception of the research activities funded by the organization," commented Dr. Lee.

To earn this recognition, White and Sottos demonstrated a new synthetic material inspired by human skin and plant leaves. It continually repairs itself using a three-dimensional microvascular network that supplies a liquid healing agent to damaged areas.

The researchers developed this new type of plastic to help counter the small cracks that tend to form deep within traditional polymeric materials. The cracks are hard to detect and fix and can lead to mechanical problems or electrical failure.

"By using the networks to carry the healing agent, the study demonstrated that the performance of self-healing materials can be further improved by incorporating a circulatory system and continuously transporting an unlimited supply of healing agent," explained Dr. Lee. "The material can heal a crack in the same location up to seven times, significantly extending its lifetime."

This research is particularly relevant to the Air Force, which requires superior performance from its aerospace vehicles and weapons systems. This basic research shows promise for a new class of composite materials that can offer autonomic, or involuntary, response.

White and Sottos have already demonstrated self-healing and are now working to incorporate cooling functionalities into the single material system. Along with adequate load-bearing capability, such a material should fulfill a key requirement for the improvement of structural performance, reliability and maintainability of Air Force systems.

AFOSR funds this program as a part of the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), which focuses on research efforts that combine traditional science and engineering disciplines to address issues of importance to the Department of Defense. Dr. White leads the program's team of researchers from the University of Illinois, Duke University and the University of California, Los Angeles.