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Self-healing material could plug life-threatening holes in spacecraft

28 August 2015

For astronauts living in space with objects passing by them at speeds of 22,000mph, it’s important to have alternative protection against these rogue super-bullets.

The self-healing material sanwiches a reactive liquid in between two layers of a solid polymer (image: University of Michigan)

While shields and avoidance manoeuvres might help protect space structures, scientists have to prepare for the possibility that debris could pierce a space craft. In the journal ACS Macro Letters, one team reports on a new material that heals itself within seconds and could prevent a structural penetration turning into a catastrophic event.

It’s hard to imagine a place more inhospitable to life than space. Yet humans have managed to travel and live there thanks to meticulous engineering. The International Space Station, equipped with 'bumpers' that vaporise debris before it can hit the station walls, is the most heavily-shielded spacecraft ever flown, according to NASA.

But should these bumpers fail, a wall breach would allow life-sustaining air to gush out of astronauts’ living quarters. The University of Michigan's Timothy F. Scott and colleagues wanted to develop a back-up defence.

The researchers developed a new kind of self-healing material by sandwiching a reactive liquid in between two layers of a solid polymer. When they shot a bullet through it, the liquid quickly reacted with oxygen from the air to form a solid plug in under a second. The researchers say the technology could also apply to other, more earth-bound structures, including cars.

The authors acknowledge funding from NASA for this work.

Video source: American Chemical Society


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