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College of Science and Mathematics

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Self-Healing Coating Could Eliminate Paint Scratches

February 7, 2014

Professor and students look at chemistry experiment setup
Phil Costanzo, a chemistry professor, instructs his research group.

Scratches in car paint may someday be a thing of the past. Phil Costanzo, a chemistry professor, and his research students are developing soybean oil-based coatings that are self-healing. The atoms in the coating act like molecular Velcro — they can stick together, be pulled apart, and then stick back together.

"If you buy a car and it gets scratched, you could take your hair dryer out and heal it up," Costanzo said. The coating could also be useful in industry and the armed forces, and because it's soybean based, it's better for the environment than many existing polymers.

The soybean-oil coating is part of a larger body of research focused on developing materials whose properties change when the configuration of the material's atoms changes. Various triggers, such as light or temperature, can cause a change in atomic configuration depending on the material

Costanzo's students Learn by Doing all the way through the research process. "My students do everything," Costanzo said. "They do all the work. They do all the synthesis. They present at the conferences."

"Research translates the theory learned in core classes to practical use," said Alex London, who has worked with Costanzo for two years. "For me, the biggest lesson was that I can’t control everything in an actual reaction — the chemistry is going to happen whether I like it or not. Research pushes me one step further into the unexplored."

Developing this adventurous spirit pays off for students in the future. "It's a huge advantage to go on to any type of advanced degree or to work in industry. It gives them lots of experience and confidence and helps them network," Costanzo said. Sixteen of his research students have gone on to doctorate programs and of those, three have received a prestigious National Science foundation fellowship to fund their first year of study, an award usually reserved for second year doctoral students.

"For me, the Learn by Doing philosophy encourages scientific thought," London said. "Research is the pinnacle of the hands-on learning experience that Cal Poly strives to provide."

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