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USM professor develops self-repairing plastic material

Marek Urban

There are exciting things happening with the Urban Research Group at the University of Southern Mississippi. The group is led by professor Marek W. Urban, Ph.D., of the university’s nationally known School of Polymer Science.

Inspired by his dream of a technology that’s now considered revolutionary in the world of plastics research, the professor has developed a unique type of plastic material that turns red, or ‘bleeds,’ when damaged and exposed to visible light. “This material has endless applications in business and industry,” he said. “It not only turns red but heals itself. I dreamed of developing this after thinking about how human skin repairs itself when damaged, and how blood coming from the injury works as a sign of that damage.

“Sometimes damage to material may not be visible to the human eye, but with the release of the colors that mimic bleeding, we have a warning of damage. It mimics nature. As scientists, we should create new ideas.”

Urban has had interviews about his discovery with the British Broadcasting Company and media outlets all over the world. He says the public will hear more about this discovery a year or two down the road.

Technically, when damage occurs to this plastic, or when stressors mount that portend damage to the material, the molecule links that span along chains of chemicals within the material split and release a color simulating bleeding. After exposure to sunlight or change in temperature, the material begins repairing itself in much the same way human skin does.

“The material has the potential to be developed into self-repairing surfaces in a wide variety of commonly used products such as cell phones, laptop computers and military weapons; even planes, bridges and spacecraft,” Urban said. “It could be used on cars to repair scratches and make an old car look like new. Oh, and just think of all the gadgets that could use this material. We think about things that last longer but are still functional. Self-healing plastic can mean more beautification and sustainability.”

Earlier this year, he made a presentation on the invention at the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

“I’m enthusiastic that further research, with the assistance of graduate students and staff in the research group, can extend the material’s usage,” Urban said. “The development of similar material that can also withstand high temperatures is on the drawing board. We will continue our research in hopes of capturing those possibilities that can further enhance our quality of life through the products we use daily.”

Born in Krakow, Poland, Urban is a U.S. citizen and came to USM in 1999 from North Dakota University to be a part of the polymer science program. With him he brought well over $10 million in federal and privately-funded research grants. Currently, he has six Ph.D. students and four undergraduate students working on high-impact projects in the group. He is also professor of polymer science and engineering and has won many scientific awards.

Urban earned degrees from Case Western Reserve University, Michigan Technological University and Marquette University.

“I would like the public to know that science is what drives the college forward and creates jobs for the state and the country,” he said. “Hopefully, everyone appreciates this kind of discovery without knowing the intricacies of it. We are making great progress. Science fiction is fiction if it doesn’t work, but if it works, it’s sustainable and has many useful applications.”

He points out that research is a large part of what university professors do in their quest to make discoveries to make everyone’s life better. Other current research being done in his group includes the development of anti-bacterial surfaces to prevent the thousands of deaths from infections in the U.S. each year. These polymer surfaces will be anti bacterial and anti coagulant.

“I’m very selective in accepting people in my research group,” Urban said. “I’m preparing the next generation to join the work force and be competitive. They have endless job possibilities when they graduate.”

This research leader says if he ever gets bored with his job, he’ll quit.

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About Lynn Lofton

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