Ten Materials Inspired By Mother Nature (VIDEO)

The natural world is filled with strange, fascinating structures that are stronger, more flexible and more resilient than anything humans can make.

AsianScientist (May 17, 2016) – When it comes to developing the right material for the right job, Nature has had a several million year head start. In the past two decades, materials scientists have been at the forefront of efforts to replicate the fascinating structures inspired by the natural world, breaking new ground in a rich area of study called biomimicry.

These days, imaging, spectroscopy and mechanical characterizations at the nano-scale have become routine in laboratories. Tremendous progress in genetic sequencing methods has allowed scientists to unveil Nature’s secrets, opening up possibilities for precise reproduction in the lab.

Although applications are starting to appear at the commercial level, in some cases research is still being pursued at the fundamental level to fully understand the underlying mechanisms that make these structures so unique. While sometimes overlooked in the pursuit of quick translation, such knowledge is essential if one wants to accurately reflect the complexity of the natural world.

Here are just ten examples of organisms that have inspired scientists in recent decades.

1. Spider and silkworm silks

Photo: mirabelka szuszu/Flickr/CC
Photo: mirabelka szuszu/Flickr/CC

Silk fibers produced by silkworms and spiders are classical examples of natural fibers with remarkable properties such as high tensile strength and stretchability. Some species of spiders produce as many as seven different types of silks with vastly different mechanical characteristics.

Silkworm domestication for textile production originated in China more than 5,000 years ago, and this historical connection has led to a strong research interest from across Asia. For instance, the group of Professor Yang Daiwen from the National University of Singapore has made important contributions to our understanding of the three-dimensional structure of silk proteins.

Applications of silk in biomedical and engineering applications range from surgical sutures and photonic elements, to vaccines that could eliminate the cold chain. A number of startup companies are now producing synthetic silks on a large scale—including the Japanese company Spiber, which says its fibers are stronger than Kevlar.

Ali Miserez is an assistant professor at the School of Materials Science and Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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