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The Speed of Change

Plastics, metals – and even concrete – that can heal themselves.

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Recently, while enjoying my first cup of coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal, a headline jumped out at me – “Self Healing Materials Aren’t Far Off.”

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According to the article written by WSJ reporter Tom Beck, researchers in the field of nanotechnology (the study of objects at the molecular level) are very close to developing material – “plastics, metals and even concrete – that can heal themselves.”

Beck’s article states that making separated molecules instantly come back together is a very large field of research. One area of study that’s showing promise is called nanovelcro.

By adding nanovelcro to the surface of the molecules that make up a particular object, the molecules stick together, yet have the ability to be separated and rejoined repeatedly. It’s similar to the velcro we’re all familiar with, yet these objects would be attaching and separating at the molecular level.

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Amy Duwel of Draper Laboratories explained, “The concept of how it works is no different than saying you can’t cut through water. When you slide a knife through water, you are separating it. But as soon as the knife is removed, the water comes back together like nothing happened.”

NASA is of course extremely interested in this technology because the ability to have self-repairing spacecraft would offer untold safety and financial advantages.

It’s also not hard to see how such technology could easily be transferred to automobile manufacturing. The effects it would have on the collision repair industry would of course be profound.

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But hey, all this sci-fi technology is way in the future. It makes for interesting reading but is never going to be something any of us has to deal with. Right?

Not according to researchers who predict commercial applications could be seen in only five years.

Over the years, collision repair shops have learned to deal with countless changes in automobile design and technology. The cars being repaired in your shop today are vastly different from the vehicles that were in your bays just 10 to 15 years ago.

Yet, if science is on the verge of the technology that this WSJ article suggests, the change in not only your business, but in everyone’s lives will be mind-boggling.

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A summer hailstorm damages the hood of a car, but the indentations are gone by the time the sun comes back out. You’re rear-ended while sitting at a stoplight, but the damage no longer exists by the time the light turns green.

Far fetched? Maybe now, but maybe not in the very near future.

“We’re moving towards a time when the physical objects around us will be made of active materials that can change shape and heal themselves and have built-in computation,” said Christine Peterson, president of Foresight Institute, a nonprofit think tank, quoted in the WSJ.

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Funny how your world can change in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.

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