Synthetic Mother-Of-Pearl, The Way Nature Intended

Researchers have created synthetic nacre, or mother-of-pearl, that forms in mere weeks instead of months or years.

AsianScientist (Aug. 19, 2016) – Researchers in China and Germany have created a synthetic nacre remarkably similar to the natural material, in a process that takes weeks instead of months or years. The study was published in Science.

Nacre, which is also known as mother-of-pearl, is the shiny material found coating pearls and inside some mollusk shells. In nature, nacre is produced using an organic matrix that acts as scaffolding. On the matrix, aragonite plates grow into one another through a mineralization process, in a brick-and-mortar fashion.

Its substantial strength and toughness make it an appealing material for various applications, yet current synthesis methods involve intricate layering and steps, as well as high temperatures, which limit the types of materials that can be used to develop a synthetic equivalent.

In the present study, first author Dr. Mao Li-Bo and colleagues from the University of Science and Technology of China and University of Konstanz in Germany designed a similar matrix and subjected it to a system that steadily pumps in minerals and additives.

In this system, calcium carbonate precipitated gradually across the matrix from a pool of calcium bicarbonate. The slow precipitation of the mineral offers a more uniform and natural formation of nacre than exists in current synthesis processes.

The synthetic nacre. Credit: Mao et al.
The synthetic nacre. Credit: Mao et al.

However, analysis of the final synthetic product reveals that it is slightly less dense than true nacre. Also, the aragonite platelets are slightly oversized, which means they can partially pop out of place, making the synthetic nacre slightly less crack-resistant.

Regardless, the synthetic material maintains mechanical properties similar to its natural counterpart, according to the study findings. The authors anticipate that this artificial mineralization method could be extended to produce other bio-inspired materials with unique or desirable properties.

The article can be found at: Mao et al. (2016) Synthetic nacre by predesigned matrix-directed mineralization.


Source: Science; Photo: brownpau/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist