New Trends in Self-Healing Materials

The core value proposition of self-healing materials needs no extensive justification. Any material that can heal its own cracks has obvious advantages that can be quickly turned into revenue generation. These advantages are potentially both practical and aesthetic and they are also of widespread applicability across many industries and sectors. Nonetheless, for the analyst looking for opportunities in the smart materials industry space, there has been little to spot until recently. Materials—typically coatings—that have been touted as self-healing have generally offered poor performance and lifetimes and were not even strictly speaking self-healing since they generally needed someone to apply heat or light to effect the self-regeneration process. Worse still, self-healing processes can take hours or days to reach their goals.

In the past decade, however, we have seen R&D carried out by both academics and industrial researchers lead to self-healing materials that are something more than inexpensive novelties. One example is the recent offering by LG of a cell phone with a case that self-heals cracks. Another is the advent of NEI’s NANOMYTE MEND, which should be considered a considerable leap forward from the low-performance self-healing coatings offered by “mom and pop” coatings firms and which were typical of the self-healing materials that dominated the market until a few years ago.

While these developments can hardly be considered revolutionary, the fact that a tier- one consumer electronics firm such as LG believes that self-healing coatings have reached a level of sophistication where they can be deployed in a high profile is a vote of confidence in the performance of self-healing materials and also in their ability to distinguish final products in the marketplace. And something similar can be said of an established firm such as NEI making self-healing coatings an important part of its business.

There are other real-world examples like this and coupled with what seem to be widespread advances in self-healing materials in the lab, n-tech believes that self-healing materials are reaching an inflection point where they can be transformed into real and substantial businesses. n-tech believes that the road forward to widespread commercialization for self-healing will be driven by (1) better mechanisms for the self-healing process itself, (2) the emergence of novel self-healing materials with important applications and (3) a trend towards self-healing components, notably electronic components.

Better Self-Healing Mechanisms: Microencapsulation and Vascular Technology

While self-healing polymers will remain dominant in the self-healing materials space throughout the current decade, n-tech believes that self-healing mechanisms based on microencapsulation and vascular technology will start to become prominent and applications where autonomic restoration is required will quickly buy into these new ways of self-healing once they become commercially available. Vascular systems are also going to pick up customers from end users who need to push the envelope.

However, before we see these technologies become mainstream there will need to be some assurances from the materials suppliers that they can be deployed without physically weakening products. And it would also be attractive if researchers could find ways to embed capsules and veins effectively into coatings. New materials are also likely to emerge to make encapsulation and the fabrication of self-healing vascular structures easier to perform. Inorganic materials are getting special attention in this regard.

New Classes of Self-Healing Materials: Concrete, Composites and Metals

Until now, the self-healing materials business has largely been about polymers. However, what n-tech is seeing are new classes of self-healing materials that are very close to commercialization and will expand the addressable market for self-healing materials by an order of magnitude. The point is that recent developments indicate that three widely used materials—concrete, composites and metals—are about to take on self-healing capabilities.

Self-healing concrete: Self-healing concrete has been a research topic for some time, but in the past two years we have seen significant involvement by commercial companies and real-world projects. The British construction company Costain is working with a number of universities in the self-healing concrete area. Another self-healing concrete project involves the Dutch company, Basilisk, which apparently is also already selling self-healing concrete products.

To date, only a few actual buildings have used self-healing concrete. But if these early efforts prove stable technologically, we think it will not be hard for such materials to prove themselves economically in terms of extended lifetimes and reduced maintenance costs.

Self-healing composites: Over the past decade composite materials have been of growing importance in major engineering projects. In the aerospace sector, more than 50 percent of materials used for planes are now composites and the use of composites in automotive is also expanding rapidly. n-tech also foresees considerable usage of composites in the construction industry.

Self-healing composites, therefore, have a clear addressable market, a market that is made even more viable by the fact that composites often have a tendency to crack that is greater than traditional materials. As a result of these drivers, there is intense interest in self-healing composites in university R&D circles.

This activity is beginning to spill over into commercial activity. Autonomic Materials is a spinoff from research done at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has developed composites that can repair themselves using a range of methods. Another start-up, nanoComposix, has partnered with researchers at UCLA to develop a new class of self-healing composite materials. And there are also signs of commercialization of self-healing composites developed in EU-funded projects.

Self-healing metals: Self-healing metals are not yet close to commercialization and such materials have proved quite difficult to fabricate in a lab, let alone commercialize. Nonetheless, recent progress suggests to n-tech that some self-healing metals will be available after 2020 or so.

From a roadmap perspective, we are thinking here, for example, of the some of the work that was reported in 2015 and 2016 by researchers from the University of Liverpool and the University of Illinois and which are in many ways quite similar to the generic encapsulation-based self-healing technology discussed above. These seem to us quite close to commercialization.

The obvious need for self-healing metals in (say) the automotive or oil and gas industries suggests that moderately successful R&D in the area will attract a lot of investment including in the form of venture capital. We also think that self-healing metals will take on some more innovative directions. For example, GKN and BAE Systems are involved in creating self-healing alloys for additive manufacturing and other university-based research is focusing on self-healing liquid metals. Another example of innovation in this space is the work on self-healing metallo-ceramics carried out at the University of Delft.

Coming Next: Self-healing Electronics

Finally, n-tech believes that we are a few years from a new wave of self-healing opportunity—self-healing electronics. We don’t expect to see any revenues emerge from this area for at least five years.

Nonetheless, a review of the technical literature suggests to us that the R&D trends will lead to self-healing electronics developments that will find commercial applications in the aerospace, automotive, medical and military areas. For now, the important work in this field is being done at universities, but n-tech expects there to see start-ups begin to emerge in this space in, say, three years. In addition, we note that Samsung is funding research on self-healing batteries for wearables. Other work in this space includes the development of self-healing sensors and self-healing dielectrics.

A Bottom Line

The bottom line in terms of market opportunity in the self-healing materials space appears to be that this sector has left behind its old origins in low-performance coatings and already made the transition to serious functional coatings status, with the applications in which self-healing materials can be used growing steadily.

n-tech thinks that the next phase of product development in the self-healing materials space will be in the area of microencapsulation and vascular self-healing systems. These systems will propel true autonomic self-healing systems to market for the first time, although they will be hard to embed into coatings and may have a tendency to weaken the substrates into which they are being embedded.

Once these issues can be solved, however, capsules and veins will bring self-healing to a much wider range of materials than ever before. Thus, we are already seeing commercialisation of self-healing concrete, self-healing composites and self-healing metals. n-tech believes that all three of these areas have considerable revenue generation potential and notes that commercial firms are already actively involved in them.

Towards the outer ranges of our forecasts we think an entirely new type of self-healing product class is likely to emerge—self-healing electronics. We think that this type of product will find a ready opportunity in several different markets and will lead to a new generation of spin off firms.