Imagine the paint scratches on your car start repairing themselves when the sun comes up. It’s totally possible.

Marek Urban, J.E. Sirrine Foundation Endowed Chair in Materials Science and Engineering, and his team create groundbreaking, complex materials that can heal themselves in response to changes in light, temperature or other stimuli.

Nanotechnology is delivering exciting discoveries because elements behave quite differently at the molecular scale — color changes, interaction with other elements, acidity, temperature and more.

The first self-healing materials were soft and repaired themselves by rebuilding a single chemical bond. But they had limited value in the field.

Urban’s team explores harder materials with complex chemical systems to heal multiple chemical breaks. The nanoparticle compounds — some of which look like blackberries under the microscope — use plentiful, natural elements such as water, carbon dioxide and chitosan (made from the pink stuff found in shellfish). The result: more durable medical implants, equipment, autos and more, made with safe, non-toxic materials. Their work has drawn support from industry, NSF, the U.S. Army and private sectors.

“We’re creating a new way of looking at materials, and imbuing them with life-like attributes, a new world of materials that can be safely embedded in our lives in a positive, constructive way, ” explains Urban.

“This is transformative, not incremental work,” says Urban. Rather than fine-tuning initial research, his team plunges into areas yet to be explored.

One project targets bacterial infections that cause more than 100,000 deaths annually: Urban’s team was the first to show that microphages (a virus specific to one kind of bacteria) could be attached to any polymer surface such as Teflon, polypropylene and other surgical implant materials to fight a bacterial infection, should it arise, and save lives.

“Academics should break new ground,” says Urban. “Being at Clemson is such an advantage because our new technologies can be taken to agriculture, health care, bioengineering, automotive, energy and other fields. We have the team to do it.”

Determined to make better materials for life — Head On.