Plastic Nanotechnology: Less is More

Oyster shells in a pile
Engineers at Bristol University in the U.K. have created plastic technologies that could one-day lead to the development of airplanes that can literally fix themselves while they are still in the air.
Interestingly, the British engineers were inspired by human biology; their plastic technology emulates the healing process in living organisms.
The self-healing plastics have micro tubes of epoxy resin embedded inside fiber-reinforced polymers. When a plane stretches and cracks, the resin in these tiny tubes oozes out, hardens, and patches the crack.
Because most of the wear and tear on airplanes is too small to be perceptible to the human eye, the Bristol engineers also dyed the resin with an ultraviolet pigment. To determine if or where the plane has healed itself, mechanical crews simply turn on the black lights, find the patches and perform a more permanent fix.

Who would have thought that a shell could spark what has been hailed by many scientists as the “next technological revolution.” By mimicking structures found in mollusks, scientists have created a transparent plastic that is as strong as steel.

Plastic nanotechnologies are built one nanoscale layer at a time. The process is similar to the way that mother-of-pearl, oyster and other mollusk shells grow. When the nanosheets are arranged in a brick-and-mortar structure, the final product is thinner than a strand of human hair but millions of times stronger.

These advancements in plastic nanotechnology reverberate widely. During the last decade, scientists have hoped to substitute polymers for the ultra-pure and very expensive silicon material used to make computer chips.

Plastic chips might soon be used in consumer electronics to drive flexible displays and keyboards and even changeable electronic wallpaper.  Imagine that when you turned off your wall-sized television screen, a wallpaper pattern would appear to camouflage it. This is the future of nanotechnology in the living room.

Other possible applications include smart train and bus tickets and radio identification tags used to keep track of parts in factories or goods in stores.

Researchers also hope to develop improved polymer solar cells using nanomaterial additives. Labs across the country and abroad are currently experimenting with thin polymer film that can be rolled out in sheets. The film contains nanoscale pieces of semiconductor material and single-walled carbon nanotubes that maximize light to energy transfers. In layman’s terms, these ultra-thin, flexible sheets of plastic convert more of the sun’s rays into clean, inexpensive energy.

Most importantly, these sheets of film can be cut up and reused even if they have been bent. This is a marked contrast to rigid silicon cells that are easily cracked and expensive to replace.