Resarchers have now figured out a way to build plastic material that heals itself.
The new material contains a fiber optic "nervous system" of sorts, which scientist can employ to detect and address cracks over time. (This is a different technique than the stretchable, electronic fabrics Imec is working on in Belgium.)
Laboratory testing has shown the material capable of restoring up to 96 percent of an object's original strength, according to the report.
Researchers said the material could be used in composite structures that humans couldn't normally reach, such as the Mars Rovers, inside satellites, or inside wind turbines.
Here's how it works: the internal network transmitted infrared light from a one-watt laser, a process that highlights any loss of light due to cracks. The surrounding plastic then absorbs the lost light, heating the material and making it 11 times tougher. In turn, that prevents it from spreading, the report said.
The U.S. National Science Foundation funded the work; the Journal of Applied Physics published the results last month. Products could be manufactured using the new material within as little as two years, according to the report.
Shape memory polymers are essentially plastics that return to their original shape when heated.
Microsoft is also working on a shape-memory polymer display that offers genuine tactile feedback, which could usher in a new generation of touch screens.
Real-life Transformers just got a little closer to reality.