The power of mending, from African ecosystems to self-repairing metals

1. United States

For the first time, scientists have observed self-repairing metals. Researchers say the discovery in nanoscale experiments that pure platinum and copper “healed” themselves, a phenomenon long thought impossible, could revolutionize engineering.

The metal structures upon which we rely – from airplanes to bridges – experience “fatigue” damage from wear and tear. Over time, nanoscopic cracks spread and lead to structural failure. In the experiment, the ends of tiny metal pieces, measured in nanometers, were pulled 200 times per second under an electron microscope. The unexpected result was cracks fusing back together. The discovery could lead to new material design and engineering to make structures longer-lasting, as well as help predict failure in existing structures.  

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In our roundup of progress worldwide, researchers discover metals that heal themselves, France offers incentives to repair (not throw away) clothes, and vultures help scientists restore big cat populations in Africa.

Left unanswered is whether “the process also happens in air, not just the vacuum environment of the microscope,” said materials scientist Brad Boyce. “It still has important ramifications for fatigue in space vehicles, or fatigue associated with subsurface cracks that are not exposed to [the] atmosphere.”

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