Self-healing aircraft wings could be a practicality according to a British professor. The same technology could work on crash helmets, phone screens and even nail varnish.
The Royal Society will host a presentation this week about the technology from the Wass Research Group, based at the University of Bristol. The group’s leader, Professor Duncan Wass, previewed the work in the Independent newspaper.
The technology is based around the self-healing properties of human skin, including scabbing. To achieve this, the group came up with a pattern of “microspheres” to be embedded in the carbon in a plane wing. When the carbon is impacted, the microspheres crack and release a liquid. They also release a catalyst that, before the impact, was kept separate from the liquid.
The set-up is designed such that the liquid has time to seep into and fill the cracks in the carbon before reacting with the catalyst and polymerizing: that is, turning into a solid material that “glues” the cracks shut.
In principle, this should allow a wing to repair itself mid-flight after an impact such as a bird strike. In practice, the plane would likely land as normal but then be kept grounded until the material had set completely. This could take anywhere from two to 24 hours depending on the temperature: the colder, the slower.
Wass suggested a dye could be added to the material so that ground staff could detect damage even if it hadn’t been noticed during the flight. He thinks this would likely involve a dye only visible under ultraviolet light “because you don’t want an aeroplane wing with a big red splodge on it showing that it’s been damaged.”
While the Wass Group is concentrating on planes, the technology might also be used on sports and safety equipment. L’Oreal is also said to be interested in adapting the concept for nail varnish.