Self-repairing machines no longer sci-fi

Mini submarine. | Newsreel
New research promises to deliver self-repairing submarines. | Photo: Naeblys (iStock)

A self-repairing submarine is one of the innovations researchers are hoping to produce with the development of new polymer composites.

Dr Nisa Salim from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology said tragedies like that of the OceanGate Titan, which claimed five lives in June last year, could be prevented.

Dr Salim said while detailed investigations of the event were still underway, experts believed the implosion of the mini submarine was caused by a tiny crack that formed in the carbon fibre composite hull under the high-pressure environment.

She said future submarines could self-identify microcracks and self-heal using a new kind of carbon fibre-reinforced polymer composites being developed at the university.

“The structure would have the ability to self-sense stresses and defects and report them in real time. The material could even self-repair such microcracks in a matter of time. The concept is that materials can behave like a living organism where they can sense, respond and adapt immediately.”

Dr Salim said her research designed multifunctional composite structures inspired from nature.

“The material self-senses with graphene, a ‘magic’ material to make fibres individual layers that act as a sensor and can give continuous information about the health of the composites in real-time.

“And, if a crack occurs, it will self-heal. Users will get information real time, while the submarine can power itself while it repairs.”

Dr Salim said the specialised polymer system could heal any microcracks itself by breaking and reforming chemical bonds via exchange reactions.

“By integrating self-sensing and self-healing functionalities into carbon fibre composites, we bring such materials to life and make them autonomous.”

She said the team was also developing an invisible battery pack, rather than using one that could take up about 30 per cent of the craft weight.

“We need such autonomous materials to stop catastrophic accidents from happening ever again. It’s not science fiction, it’s the future of technology and innovation”.