A team of carbon fiber modification specialists has developed technology that allows aircraft wings to repair themselves mid-flight. The technology adds powder-sized, hollow “microspheres” to the existing carbon fiber. The microspheres break on impact, releasing a liquid healing agent that seeps into the cracks left by damage. The result is a chemical reaction that causes the liquid to harden.

“We took inspiration from the human body,” said University of Bristol professor Duncan Wass, the lead researcher on the project. “We’ve not evolved to withstand any damage – if we were like that we’d have a skin as thick as a rhinoceros – but if we do get damaged, we bleed, and it scabs and heals. We just put that same sort of function into a synthetic material. Let’s have something that can heal itself.”

Wass suggested that the technology is likelier to work faster in warm weather.

“If you’re on a runway in Dubai, [a damaged plane] would probably heal in a couple of hours, but if you were on a runway in Reykjavik in winter, it would probably be more like 24 hours,” said Wass.

In addition to helping wings recover mid-flight, the technology can help aviation engineers identify sustained damages to the aircraft during flight. By adding a dye to the healing agent, damage to the wings could stand out like a bruise on human skin.

“We’d probably do it with something which is invisible to the naked eye,” Wass said, noting that any alternative could potentially scare passengers. “You don’t want an aeroplane wing with a big red splodge on it showing that it’s been damaged.”

The researchers’ work can be applied throughout the aerospace industry, but also could potentially have automotive, energy, cosmetic and sports applications. Possibilities include lighter and safer car batteries, self-healing wind turbines, more durable bicycles and helmets, self-healing nail polish and a solution for cracked smartphone screens. Wass says he expects these range of products to be available “very soon.”