UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering University of California San Diego
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Self-Healing Self-Sensing Supermaterial

Jacobs School professor Sia Nemat-Nasser received nearly $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation to create a new structural material with embedded sensing capabilities. This latest project is part of his ongoing efforts to create a strong structural material with selfhealing and tunable electromagnetic properties.

"We plan to weave micro-chips – sensors with on-board data processors and copper wire into a braided, fiber-reinforced polymeric composite," says Nemat-Nasser. "The embedded sensors could help detect such things as damage, unsafe conditions, the operating environment or other external factors, as well as collect data on the structure's overall status."

Nemat-Nasser has already created a material that exhibits self-healing properties. "This composite material contains a chemically manufactured polymer matrix that can re-polymerize its broken covalent bonds and heal at the molecular level." The thin strands of woven copper that link the embedded sensors also provide electrical and thermal conductivity and increase the rate of polymerization as heat circulates through the material.

Another benefit of the copper wire is its electromagnetic effect, creating the potential to make composite materials friendly to wireless communications. The material can be made to have an index of refraction equal to one for a given wavelength, which means that a electromagnetic signal sent and received through the material would not see the material, and therefore not be distorted by refraction.