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Catalyst-Free Chemistry Material System Offers Cost-Effective Repair for Composite Materials

The catalyst-free system uses microcapsules containing chlorobenzene to repair cracks in composite materials. Click to enlarge.

A new catalyst-free, self-healing material system developed by researchers at the University of Illinois offers a less expensive and more practical way to repair composite materials used in structural applications ranging from airplane fuselages to wind-farm propeller blades.

The new self-healing system incorporates chlorobenzene microcapsules, as small as 150 microns in diameter, as an active solvent. The expensive, ruthenium-based Grubbs’ catalyst, which was required in the researchers’ first approach, is no longer needed.

By removing the catalyst from our material system, we now have a simpler and more economical alternative for strength recovery after crack damage has occurred. Self-healing of epoxy materials with encapsulated solvents can prevent further crack propagation, while recovering most of the material’s mechanical integrity.

—Jeffrey Moore, the Murchison-Mallory Professor of Chemistry at Illinois

The new chemistry is described in a paper accepted for publication in the ACS journal Macromolecules, and posted on the journal’s Web site.

During normal use, epoxy-based materials experience stresses that can cause cracking, which can lead to mechanical failure. Autonomous self-healing—a process in which the damage itself triggers the repair mechanism—can retain structural integrity and extend the lifetime of the material.

Although we demonstrated the self-healing concept with a ruthenium-based catalyst, the cost of the catalyst made our original approach too expensive and impractical. Our new self-healing system is simple, very economical and potentially robust.

—Jeffrey Moore

In the researchers’ original approach, self-healing materials consisted of a microencapsulated healing agent (dicyclopentadiene) and Grubbs’ catalyst embedded in an epoxy matrix. When the material cracked, microcapsules would rupture and release the healing agent, which then reacted with the catalyst to repair the damage.

In their new approach, when a crack forms in the epoxy material, microcapsules containing chlorobenzene break. The solvent disperses into the matrix, where it finds pockets of unreacted epoxy monomers. The solvent then carries the latent epoxy monomers into the crack, where polymerization takes place, restoring structural integrity.

In fracture tests, self-healing composites with catalyst-free chemistry recovered as much as 82% of their original fracture toughness.

The new catalyst-free chemistry has taken down the barriers to cost and level of difficulty, Moore said. “From an economics and simplicity standpoint, self-healing materials could become part of everyday life.

With Moore, co-authors of the paper are graduate student and lead author Mary Caruso, former postdoctoral research associate David Delafuente (now a chemistry and physics professor at Augusta State University), visiting University of Texas at Austin undergraduate student Victor Ho, materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos, and aerospace engineering professor Scott White.

The work was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.


  • Mary M. Caruso, David A. Delafuente, Victor Ho, Nancy R. Sottos, Jeffrey S. Moore, and Scott R. White. “Solvent-Promoted Self-Healing Epoxy Materials” Macromolecules Web Release Date: 08-Nov-2007; (Communication to the Editor) DOI: 10.1021/ma701992z



By adding in these structurally non contributing capsules, how much do they reduce the strength of the un-damaged composite compared to A normal non self healing composite?

Rafael Seidl

@ coal_burner -

the impact on nominal strength should be minimal in high-end composites with long, carefully oriented fiber weaves. However, without self-healing properties, such a component is susceptible to failure by crack propagation and delamination at much lower stress levels. This applies especially for cyclic loads (cp. metal fatigue) and impacts (cp. bird strike on a wind turbine, shrapnel on a fighter plane).

Using chlorobenzene as an embedded solvent to produce additional matrix material at crack tips is an inspired idea, but it is toxic and does make recycling the component even more of a headache.


Manufacturing cost? And yes, chlorobenzene (how many Cl groups - 6?) is horrible stuff. Toxic plus ozone depleting.

What happens in a fire, in an aircraft crash? Even more toxicity to deal with, lowering survival chances.

In 2005, the rudder on an A310 exploded in mid flight - shattered, due to build up of stress fractures. We know plastics get brittle afer long term environmental exposure. Allowing whole aircraft load bearing structures to be made of plastic does not fill me with confidence.

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