Developing self-healing materials is nothing new at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for Nancy Sottos, lead of the Autonomous Materials Systems Group at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Drawing inspiration from biological circulatory systems such as the leaves on a tree or blood vessels, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers has worked on developing vascularized structural composites for more than a decade. They have created materials that are lightweight and can self-cool and self-heal.
The newly published Nature Communications paper, “Rapid Synchronized Fabrication of Vascularized Thermosets and Composites,” by a team of Beckman researchers led by Mayank Garg and Scotto’s ( lead author and postdoctoral research associate), has shortened the two-day manufacturing process to approximately two minutes by harnessing frontal polymerization of readily available resins.
Sottos said “For the past several years, we’ve been looking for ways to make vascular networks in high-performance material. This is a real breakthrough for making vascular networks in structural materials in a way that saves a lot of time and saves a lot of energy.”
Garg said the easy way to understand their work is by picturing the composition of the leaf with its structural network and international channel. The leaf is made from rigid structure material; inside, fluid flows through different channels and spouts of its interconnected vasculature. The liquid is capable of various functions in the case of the researchers’ composites, such as heating or cooling in response to extreme environments.
According to Garg, they want to create these life-like structures. Still, they also want them to over substantially longer times to maintain their performance than existing infrastructure by adopting an approach biology uses. For transporting, nutrients and water tress have a network from the ground against gravity, and synthesized food is transported from the leaf to the rest of the tree. To regulate the temperature, repair existing material, and grow new material, the fluid flow in both directions over the entire lifecycle of the tree. They try to replace these dynamic functions in a non-biological system.
For the Autonomous Materials Systems Group creating these complex materials has historically been a long process. Scientists opt for frontal polymerization to generate the host materials. This is a reaction-thermal diffusion system that uses the diffusion and generation of heat to promote two different chemical reactions concurrently. During the solidification of the host, the heat is created internally. To manufacture the vascular material, surplus heat deconstructs an embedded template in tandem. By combining two steps into one, the researchers can shorten the process. The new approach enables researchers to have more control over the creation of the networks.