A researcher examines data on a large screen while standing among laboratory equipment lit with red light.

Stunning discovery: Metals can heal themselves

August 8, 2023 8:31 am Published by

Scientists for the first time have witnessed pieces of metal crack, then fuse back together without any human intervention, overturning fundamental scientific theories in the process. If the newly discovered phenomenon can be harnessed, it could usher in an engineering revolution — one in which self-healing engines, bridges and airplanes could reverse damage caused by wear and tear, making them safer and longer-lasting.

The research team from Sandia National Laboratories and Texas A&M University described their findings today in the journal Nature.

“This was absolutely stunning to watch first-hand,” said Sandia materials scientist Brad Boyce.

“What we have confirmed is that metals have their own intrinsic, natural ability to heal themselves, at least in the case of fatigue damage at the nanoscale,” Boyce said.

Fatigue damage is one way machines wear out and eventually break. Repeated stress or motion causes microscopic cracks to form. Over time, these cracks grow and spread until — snap! The whole device breaks, or in the scientific lingo, it fails.

The fissure Boyce and his team saw disappear was one of these tiny but consequential fractures — measured in nanometers.

“From solder joints in our electronic devices to our vehicle’s engines to the bridges that we drive over, these structures often fail unpredictably due to cyclic loading that leads to crack initiation and eventual fracture,” Boyce said. “When they do fail, we have to contend with replacement costs, lost time and, in some cases, even injuries or loss of life. The economic impact of these failures is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars every year for the U.S.”

Although scientists have created some self-healing materials, mostly plastics, the notion of a self-healing metal has largely been the domain of science fiction.

“Cracks in metals were only ever expected to get bigger, not smaller. Even some of the basic equations we use to describe crack growth preclude the possibility of such healing processes,” Boyce said.

Read the complete news release.

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