NASA’s Self-Healing Polymer Could Save Astronauts’ Lives

self-healing polymer
Image source: NASA (screenshot via YouTube)

NASA engineers have developed a polymer capable of healing itself within microseconds of damage from high-velocity projectiles like bullets or stones. The self-healing polymer was developed by NASA engineer Scott Zavada, who was working on a solution for the space agency’s concerns about damage from micro-meteoroids.

NASA scientists were concerned about what would happen if a tiny meteoroid would puncture an astronaut’s spacesuit, a vehicle or a habitat on the moon or Mars. The astronaut’s life would be in danger in such a scenario because the air inside the suit, vehicle or habitat would suddenly come rushing out, leaving them with no air to breathe.

Self-healing polymer to protect against projectiles

To address this concern, Zavada came up with the idea to use a reactive liquid in the walls of the habitat, vehicle or spacesuit. The liquid would then rush into any holes which appear suddenly, come into contact with the air that’s coming out of the hole, and then turn from a liquid to a solid to plug the hole. He proposed this idea to NASA”s Space Technology Research Fellowship program, and he started working on the project after winning the proposal.

According to Zavada, NASA has been working on the problem of micro-meteoroids for quite some time. Mia Siochi and Keith Gordon pioneered the work, finding a number of plastics which can be shot with a gun, but no bullet hole is left behind afterward. The problem with those plastics is that the effect only works in certain temperatures. Thus, they incorporated the reactive liquid into a multi-layer structure as a sort of backup healing system or failsafe. It’s designed to cover all potential circumstances in which an object might be punctured by a high-velocity projectile in space.

To prove that a liquid could react fast enough to seal a hole in such a situation. The plastics NASA researchers were working with before have an instantaneous healing action of only microseconds. But when the plastic won’t heal itself, the liquid must still react fast enough to seal the hole. The NASA team at Langley was able to prove that their idea does work.

The space agency has made the patent for its self-healing polymer available for licensing in the private sector. To learn more about it, you can watch the YouTube video: