Scott R. White - The man who can heal materials
For many the work of Scott R. White seems like magic – he can make material heal itself when cracked. We caught up with the professor of aerospace engineering and chatted about his work and his recent Humboldt Research Award.
Congratulations on the award Professor, can you tell us why you won it?
It was awarded based on my research on autonomous materials systems. To quote the Humboldt Foundation, "The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn, Germany, annually honors up to 100 researchers elected by a multinational, multidisciplinary panel of scholars. According to the foundation, the recipients are “academics whose fundamental discoveries, new theories, or insights have had a significant impact on their own discipline and beyond and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge academic achievements in future.”
Briefly take us through self-healing materials
These are materials that repair themselves whenever they are damaged. The damage event itself triggers this healing response, thus no external intervention is needed. This behaviour mimics the body's own systems of autonomic healing, for example when your finger is cut it triggers a cascade of processes that ultimately lead to complete healing of the cut.
There seem to be many applications of this technology – what are you most excited about?
I'm most excited to see the technology used in cases where damage (of the material) can lead to serious and catastrophic failure. One example is modern aircraft made from composites materials that can suffer from invisible damage that slowly grows until a large enough crack in the structure leads to catastrophic failure. Self-healing materials would quietly do their job and heal the small scale damage long before it became a problem. Hopefully, we'd have safer aircraft, automobiles, bridges, and so forth in the future.
You’ll be collaborating with German researchers as part of the award - what will you be working on?
I am working with Dr. Peter Fratzl and his colleagues on bio-inspired materials. I want to learn as much as I can about how biological systems accomplish their amazing array of autonomic functions. For example, our bodies maintain thermal stasis despite sometimes large fluctuations in environmental temperature. Can we apply the same principles to engineered materials? Another question on my mind is harnessing the bodies ability to remodel (e.g. bone) to provide a mechanism to replace aged materials with new ones throughout the lifetime of engineering structures.
Do you think awards such as this are important for fostering collaboration?
Absolutely. Without this award I simply would not have the resources to embark on this collaboration. The opportunity to live in residence and collaborate in person is immensely important, especially in the beginning.
Several breakthroughs in materials science have been influenced by Nature – Do you think in this regard Nature always knows best?
Most would answer instinctively "yes." However, the answer I believe is more nuanced. Nature through many years of evolution has reach an optimal solution, but the driving factors for that "optimum" are perhaps not necessarily the same as what engineering demands. We can learn a great deal from nature, but I believe we need to be inspired by these lessons, and not necessarily mimic the exact structure or process we see in natural systems.