No more cracked phone screens? 'Self-repairing' glass is first step towards more durable tech gadgets

  • A new glass material could be the answer to broken glasses and smartphone screens
  • This material known as “polyether thioureas”, uses hydrogen bonding to make the edges of the broken glass self-adhesive
Agence France-Presse |

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A Japanese researcher developed a new type of glass in 2017 that can be repaired simply by pressing it back together after it cracks.

The discovery has since opened the way for super-durable glass that could triple the lifespan of everyday products such as car windows, construction materials, fish tanks and even toilet seats.

Yu Yanagisawa, a chemistry researcher at the University of Tokyo, made the breakthrough by chance while investigating adhesives that can be used on wet surfaces.

Does this mean you will soon be able to repair those cracks in your smartphone with a quick press of the fingers? Or piece together a shattered milk tea glass that has been dropped accidentally? Well, not quite. Not now and in fact, not in the near future.

But it does open a window of opportunity for researchers to explore ways to make more durable, lightweight, glasslike items, such as car windows.

In a lab demonstration, Yanagisawa broke a glass sample into two pieces. He then held the cross sections of the two pieces together for about 30 seconds until the glass repaired itself, almost resembling its original form.

Lesson plan: Self-healing materials 

To demonstrate its strength, he then hung a nearly full bottle of water from the piece of glass – and it stayed intact. The organic glass, made of a substance called polyether thioureas, is closer to acrylic than mineral glass, which is used for tableware and smartphone screens.

Other scientists have showed similar properties by using rubber or gel materials but Yanagisawa was the first to demonstrate the self-healing concept with glass. The secret lies in the thiourea, which uses hydrogen bonding to make the edges of the shattered glass self-adhesive, according to Yanagisawa’s study.

But what use is all this if it cannot produce a self-healing smartphone screen? “It is not realistically about fixing what is broken, more about making longer-lasting resin glass,” Yanagisawa said, as glass products can fracture after years of use due to physical stress and fatigue.