British scientists believe they have developed aircraft wings that are capable of fixing themselves even in mid-flight. Experts view this breakthrough as the next step to achieving self-healing technology.
Duncan Wass, a professor at the University of Bristol, and his research team has spent three years developing the self-healing wings. They teamed up with aerospace engineers in finding a way to prevent the formation of small cracks in the fuselage and wings of an aircraft.
The researchers discovered a process wherein they could combine small, hollow microspheres to the carbon fiber composite materials often used in manufacturing the wings on commercial aircrafts.
The idea is to use these microspheres as containers for a liquid healing agent which would be released when the wings suffer damages. The agent would seep into the cracks then, once it reaches a catalyst located inside the wings, it would start a chemical reaction that would cause the liquid agent to harden.
Wass and his team found that the resulting hardened agent is just as sturdy as the original carbon fiber material.
"We took inspiration from the human body," Wass explained. "We've not evolved to withstand any damage—if we were like that we'd have a skin as thick as a rhinoceros'—but if we do get damaged, we bleed, and it scabs and heals."
"We just put that same sort of function into a synthetic material: let's have something that can heal itself."
The self-healing technology can also help aviation engineers in identifying damages on the aircraft sustained during flight. The researchers are considering combining the liquid healing agent with a dye that would make spotting damages easier.
Wass said that they could produce a dye that could only be seen through the help of ultraviolet light so as not to alarm the passengers if in case they spot the liquid healing agent doing its work during the flight.
One particular downside to the liquid healing agent is that it takes about a couple of hours to an entire day to harden completely. In warmer temperatures, the agent can harden quickly, but in colder temperatures, the process takes longer to finish.
The findings of the study are set to be presented at the Catalysis Improving Society conference scheduled for this week.
Aside from its potential benefits to aviation, the principles behind the self-healing technology can also be applied in other purposes such as self-healing nail varnish.
Photo: David Precious | Flickr