Like the human body, a digital device often suffers a few bruises and scratches within a lifetime. As in medicine, these injuries can be easily detected and repaired (or healed). At other times, however, a digital device may sustain hard-to-pinpoint nanoscale scratches, which can cause the device as a whole to malfunction.
In a paper published today, Jan. 10, in Nature Nanotechnology, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) propose a “repair-and-go” approach to fixing malfunctions caused by small-surface cracks on any digital device or part before it hits store shelves.
“Anything that’s a machine with a surface is affected by these small-scale cracks,” said Anna Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and coinvestigator on the project. “These are surfaces that play a role in almost anything, especially functionality.”
The Pitt-UMass research team approach was inspired by the ability of white blood cells in the body to heal wounds on-site. Balazs and Pitt colleagues first came up with a theoretical “repair-and-go” method: A flexible microcapsule filled with a solution of nanoparticles would be applied to a damaged surface; it would then repair defects by releasing nanoparticles into them. Using nanoparticles and droplets of oil stabilized with a polymer surfactant—compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid—the UMass team actualized the theory, showing that these microcapsules found the cracks and delivered the nanoparticle contents into them. Balazs proposes that manufacturers use this method as a last step in the building process.
“The repair-and-go method can extend the lifetime of any system or device,” she said. “Additionally, it could be used as a repair method after a crack has been found.”