Plant-like material uses carbon dioxide to build and heal itself

Carbon dioxide is abundant in our atmosphere and, although a burden of humankind's own making, its abundance presents an opportunity for material science.

A new material has been designed by MIT engineers that mimics plant matter; when exposed to carbon dioxide, it grows, strengthens and repairs itself. The synthetic material (which avoids using fossil fuels) is envisioned to be used as an architectural coating to repair damaged buildings. 

The gel-like polymer continuously incorporates carbon dioxide into its own structure and points to the future development of a class of materials capable of using atmospheric carbon dioxide as a regenerative source. The gel works similarly to how plants incorporate carbon from the atmosphere into their growing tissues using the power of sunlight.

Composed of aminopropyl methacrylamide (APMA), glucose, glucose oxidase (an enzyme) and chloroplasts, the material starts off as a liquid polymer and when exposed to carbon dioxide, clusters into a solid form. The MIT engineers obtained the chloroplasts from spinach leaves (to catalyze the reaction of carbon dioxide into glucose), and in the future, the researchers envision the chloroplasts being replaced by nonbiological catalysts.

When exposed to sunlight the material repairs its scratches and cracks around the affected area without requiring human labour and an additional material. Although the plant-like material is not yet strong enough to be used as a building material itself, it gives insight into how materials which mimic biological forms are the future of building a sustainable architectural landscape.

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