Your Smartphone Might Soon Be Able to Repair Itself

Self-healing materials are on the way

Key Takeaways

  • The growing field of self-repairing materials could one day mean gadgets that don’t need repairs.  
  • Researchers have devised self-repairing nanocrystals that can be used in semiconductors. 
  • Australian researchers recently demonstrated a way to help 3D-printed plastic heal itself at room temperature using only lights.
Woman repairing mobile phone at home

Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Forget replacing broken parts as your smartphone one day might be able to heal itself. 

Researchers say they have discovered self-repairing nanocrystals that can be used in semiconductors. The nanocrystals are aimed at solar panels but could have a wide range of uses in electronics. It's part of a growing effort to find materials that repair themselves to reduce waste. 

"Users will now be able to repair cracks on previously inaccessible circuits by hand," tech expert Jonathan Tian told Lifewire in an email interview. "Usually, when such breaks occur, the entire chip (or even the entire device) could be discarded. Furthermore, by extending the lives of electrical systems, self-healing technology will reduce the amount of electronic waste entering the environment."

Heal Thyself

While self-healing materials might seem like science fiction from movies like The Terminator or Spiderman, they are becoming a reality. Israel Institute of Technology scientists recently developed eco-friendly nanocrystal semiconductors capable of self-healing. 

The process uses a group of materials called double perovskites that display self-healing properties after being damaged by the radiation of an electron beam. The perovskites, first discovered in 1839, have recently garnered scientists' attention due to unique electro-optical characteristics that make them highly efficient in energy conversion, despite inexpensive production. The perovskites could be useful in solar cells. 

The perovskite nanoparticles were produced in the lab using a short, simple process that involved heating the material for a few minutes. A  transmission electron microscope caused faults and holes in the nanocrystals. 

The investigators "saw that the holes moved freely within the nanocrystal but avoided its edges," the team wrote in a news release. "The researchers developed a code that analyzed dozens of videos made using the electron microscope to understand the movement dynamics within the crystal. They found that holes formed on the surface of the nanoparticles, and then moved to energetically stable areas inside."

Growing Field

The field of self-repairing materials is rapidly expanding. For example, Australian researchers recently demonstrated a way to help 3D-printed plastic heal itself at room temperature using only lights. The University of New South Wales team has shown that adding a "special powder" to the liquid resin used in the printing process can later assist with making quick and easy repairs should the material break.

Shining standard LED lights can repair the printed plastic in around one hour, which causes a chemical reaction and fusion of the two broken pieces.

The researchers claim that the entire process makes the repaired plastic even stronger than before it was damaged. It is hoped that further development of the technique will help to reduce chemical waste in the future. 

Someone reaching down to pick up a smashed smartphone on the ground.

Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

"In many places where you use a polymer material, you can use this technology," Nathaniel Corrigan, one of the team members, said in a news release. "So, if a component fails, you can repair the material without having to throw it away. There is an obvious environmental benefit because you're not having to re-synthesize a brand-new material every time it gets broken. We are increasing the lifespan of these materials, which is going to reduce plastic waste."

Bram Vanderborght, a professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, is part of a team working on self-repairing robotic grippers. The grippers use self-healing polymers and are intended for use in environments where robots are often damaged. "But this technology and our work also have applications beyond the current application," He told Lifewire in an email interview.

Self-healing robots could provide more autonomy in the future. 

"We can expect progress in developing damage-tolerant material systems that support electronic and robotic functionality," Tian said. "These systems may include materials capable of detecting damage, reporting the event, and healing or adjusting material properties to mitigate the damage to avoid failure or future damage."

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