An unusual Jello-like material made mostly of water could have the potential to improve everything from artificial joints to contact lenses.
Developed by scientists in the United States and Japan, the material is a hydrogel and is surprisingly resilient.
"Most hydrogels are like gelatin; you touch them and they break into pieces," Discovery News quoted Wen-li Wu, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and an author of the new study, as saying.
"What we are talking about is a gel that you can squeeze as hard as you can, but it's still slippery," he said.
Hydrogel is produced from materials that are cheap and readily available and, it is held together by two polymers.
Out of the two polymers, the first is a charged solid that clings to a second, uncharged liquid polymer. If a crack develops in the solid polymer, the liquid polymer flows into the defect and essentially heals it.
The hydrogel is clear and as slippery as natural cartilage -- an improvement over current materials used in artificial joints.
The hydrogel is also softer and more resistant to wear than current materials, say its makers.
"It will definitely absorb more shocks than current materials," said Wu.
Since it is resistant to the build-up of proteins, the hydrogel could also be used for contact lenses and artificial corneas, among other applications.
"It's an excellent material, very tough," said Curt Frank, a scientist at Stanford University who works on hydrogels but was not involved in the NIST work.
"The hydrogel's properties are very comparable to human tissues and have the potential to create a device that could replace human tissue," he said.
The research was presented at the March meeting of the American Physical Society.