Self-healing aeroplane wings could be introduced in the next five to 10 years, say UK researchers at the University of Bristol.
The team drew inspiration from the way the human body heals from a cut with blood that hardens into a scab.
They have developed tiny microspheres containing a liquid carbon-based “healing agent”, which are interspersed in the aeroplane wing itself.
The spheres burst when damaged, releasing the liquid, which hardens.
This hardening occurs when the liquid comes into contact with a catalyst substance, also present in the material of the modified wing. Temperature is an additional factor.
“We’re talking about tiny cracks – not a 1m-wide (3ft) hole,” said chemistry professor Duncan Wass.
“But micro-cracks can lead to catastrophic failures.”
The technology could also be applied to other products made of carbon composite materials – including bicycle frames and wind turbines, he added,
“Composite materials are increasingly used in modern airlines, military aircraft and wind turbines. They are very stiff and strong but very light.
“That’s perfect for aerospace… but the problem is if they are damaged, they are difficult to protect and repair,” he said.
“Our technology would enable you to maybe extend the maintenance schedule or use less material without compromising safety.”
The “healed” aircraft wings were often as strong as they had been originally, said Prof Wass, who is working with aerospace engineer colleagues on the research project.
“We are talking about aeroplane wings here – the most demanding application because of the safety aspect,” he said.
“You have to over-engineer. We would literally break it, allow it to heal, break it again. In some cases we were getting 100% recovery.”