Could Your Broken Cell Phone Regenerate Itself? Pitt Researchers Explore How

Dec 31, 2013

What do an iPhone and a salamander have in common?

Not much now, but University of Pittsburgh researchers think they have created a way for objects like cell phones to regenerate themselves when broken the way amphibians do.

Pitt researchers have developed a computational model to create a new polymer gel that could simulate regeneration in complex materials.

Principal investigator Anna Balazs, a Pitt chemical engineering professor, said they were inspired by amphibians’ ability to grow back parts of their bodies.

“When you cut off a part of their limb, they have the ability to completely regrow that limb,” Balazs said. “And we asked: Could we design a purely synthetic material that could display this level of regeneration?”

She said they needed to develop a system that would sense the removal of material and initiate regrowth, propagate that growth until the material reached the desired size and then self-terminate the process.

“This is trying to go a step beyond self-healing,” Balazs said. “People have made self-healing materials that can just mend a small crack.  This is trying to go and create a material that completely replenishes itself, that when you cut away a part, it regrows.”

The researchers have tested their computer simulation by comparing it to known experimental results.

They collaborated with Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, a world famous synthetic polymer chemist, and he is now going to physically test their research.

“The experimentalist needs guidelines, a completed blueprint - where they should look, what kinds of combinations of components should they use to build this material,” Balazs said. “And that’s what we did, we laid down the blueprint.”

Balazs said the Pitt researchers’ next step is to find ways to strengthen their gel.

“The goal is to try and incorporate this into commercial products and see it being used successfully,” Balazs said. “And now gels are commonly used for example in coatings on surfaces, so it’d be perfect for that.”