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The New Alchemy: How Self-Healing Materials Could Change the World

Scientists are cooking up asphalt, concrete, and metals that heal themselves. That means smarter and stronger infrastructure—and just a dash of magic.
If the Terminator could do it, so can the buildings around him.
If the Terminator could do it, so can the buildings around him.Flickr/Garry Knight

Once, alchemy ruled our understanding of the material world. Part science and part mysticism, its practitioners experimented with alloys, searched for a universal solvent, and hoped for a philosopher's stone—a substance that turned to gold any metal it touched.

These days, materials science takes a more rigorous multi-disciplinary approach to this sort of engineering. Materials scientists design and discover extraordinary variations on the metals, ceramics, and polymers we think we know. And lately, they're taking their cues from how the human body heals itself, transmuting those mechanics into asphalts, concretes, and metals that can mend their own cracks.