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Harvesting the Sea’s Advanced Material Bounty

Posted on February 22nd, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

Now schooling us with the most elemental of objects, it seems Mother Nature is no longer content to occasionally put humans back in their place using a natural disaster like a tsunami or earthquake.

With increasing frequency, researchers are literally applying the old idiom of “leaving no stone unturned” in their quest for advanced materials, turning their attention to the simplest of sea creatures. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, surviving within some of the earth’s most inhospitable of environments, have given creatures such as mollusks and sea urchins unique characteristics which could hold the key to future advancements in materials as well as lightweight, efficient, and strong methods for structural construction. Using advanced techniques, researchers around the globe are unlocking the secrets of the deep.

An article by Bill Steele recently published on physics.org entitled “Materials scientists learn how mother of pearl is made” caught my attention this week explaining the process of how Cornell researchers used a high-resolution scanning transmission electron microscope to examine a cross section of a particular mollusk shell. More interesting than the experiment to me was the painstaking preparation. When trying to examine a structure at a nano-scale, the specimen must be smoothed with micron-sized abrasives or the “grooves” left by the preparation would exceed the size of the elements they were trying to resolve. Fortunately, their success in preparation and experimentation helped identify how the layers of calcium carbonate nanoparticles increase in density as they migrate from inside the shell to the outside and combine with organic material creating the incredibly strong material commonly known as “mother of pearl”. This formerly undiscovered knowledge could lead to the synthesis of new materials with remarkable properties. Exciting stuff!

Could a sea creature so delicate that it buries itself in the sand to survive hold the key shock resistant structures or taller building using less material? The heart urchin – a cousin to the common sea urchin – is giving researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Chemistry new insights for the creation of next generation materials that are strong, lightweight, and durable. Entitled “Sea urchin spurs new ideas for lightweight materials”, an article on physics.org explains how the soft heart urchins – also known as sea potatoes – use their exoskeletons to protect their fleshy bodies from predators. Made from brittle calcium carbonate, the fascinating finding is not simply the material, but how the structure is made up of microscopic cavities resembling soapsuds. With varying density of these cavities – up to 70% air in some places – the urchin’s exoskeleton has evolved to efficiently use material where it’s needed.

Yet another amazing property of sea creature exoskeletons is being studied by researchers at Harvard University:

Published by Physics World, “Materials inspired by nature” described several projects Joanna Aizenberg and her colleagues at Harvard University are studying and their implications on modern society. Watch the entire video to learn more. It’s incredible to think that a simple sea sponge could inspire advanced architectural materials.

While it’s true that no other species has more command over its environment than man, findings in nature such as these are humbling and prove we have much to learn. By closely examining what naturally surrounds us, using our powers of observation to gather undiscovered knowledge, researchers, scientists and engineers can unlock secrets in the forces of nature to better serve society in harmony with the environment.

How has nature inspired innovation for your organization? Tell us about your quest for uncommon knowledge and what it could mean for the future. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

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