We’ve already had self-healing concrete, now welcome to the world of self-healing airplane wings. After having worked quietly on the project for the past three years, a team of British scientists has now announced a new carbon fiber technology that, when damaged, can fix itself.
Drawing inspiration from how the body heals wounds, the idea started as all good ones do: as a doodle on the back on an envelope. Since then, the team of researchers at the University of Bristol has been working with aerospace engineers to develop the material. The product they've come up with is able to patch over small, almost undetectable cracks in the wings of planes. The new technology represents an important step in self-healing products becoming more commonplace, with possible uses in bike frames, sports equipment, and even cracked smartphone screens.
It works in a similar way to the aforementioned concrete, with the carbon fiber material being infused with microbeads so small they look like dust to the human eye. But rather than filling the spheres with microbes, they contain a liquid healing agent which, when released during damage, reacts with a catalyst and consequently hardens. How long the setting process takes, however, depends on temperature. So cracks in the wing of a plane in Dubai might harden in hours compared to one in Reykjavik that could take days, according to the researchers.
Now, we’re only talking here about tiny micro-cracks – not major holes – but even the smallest of cracks on a plane’s wing can have the gravest of consequences. While talking to the Independent on Sunday, lead researcher Professor Duncan Wass even suggested that a dye could be added to the liquid so that when the aircraft is having a safety check, any damage would show up like a bruise. He hastened to add that any dye would have to be invisible to the human eye so as not to unintentionally panic passengers.
Announcing their research at a Royal Society meeting this week, they suggest that it could be essentially applied to any product that uses carbon fiber. An area in which the material might have a major impact is for wind turbines damaged by bird strikes, as fixing a scratch on a blade 30 meters (100 feet) in the air isn’t all that simple. Wass thinks that it’ll be another five to 10 years before we start seeing the product in general use.