MIT Energy Initiative

Novel metallic gels that fluoresce

Materials could be used to detect structural failure in energy-related equipment

Image from Fluorescent polymer gels, Energy Futures Spring 2016Credit: Pangkuan Chen, MIT

We can make a material that emits white light, reports its own failure, and then recovers. So it’s a self-reporting material that’s also self-healing.

Niels Holten-Andersen

MIT researchers are now making fluorescent polymer gels that change color when they’re shaken, heated, exposed to acid, or otherwise disrupted. Given that response, these novel materials could be effective sensors for detecting changes in structures, fluids, or the environment. To create the gels, the researchers combine a widely used polymer with a metal that fluoresces and a chemical that can bind the two together. Mixed into a solvent, the metal and binder instantly self-assemble, grabbing the polymer molecules and pulling them together to form a gel. By using different metals, the researchers can control the physical properties of the gel as well as the color of light it emits. In a series of tests, the gels emitted a color-coded response to a variety of subtle external stimuli and later returned to their pre-stressed state and color.


This research was supported in part by the MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund