The imitation of nature in engineering has become one of the hottest trends in science. Almost every week, amazing technologies are being advanced the easy way – by observing how living things do it. We all stand to benefit from the design-based science of biomimetics. Here are a few recent examples.
1. Layered materials by imitation: PhysOrg titled an article, “Mimicking biological complexity, in a tiny particle.” MIT engineers are finding ways to make micromolds for multilayer structures the way the body does, to build tissue replacements for surgery. Some of the structures they’re working on may even contain biological collagen.
2. Spider silk: Spider webs remain one of the holy grails for biomimicy engineers. An article on Science Daily is titled, “Why Spiders Don’t Drop Off of Their Threads: Source of Spider Silk’s Extreme Strength Unveiled.” It begins, “Spider thread has five times the tensile strength of steel and is stronger than even the best currently available synthetic fibers. Scientists have now succeeded in unveiling a further secret of silk proteins and the mechanism that imparts spider silk with its strength.” A professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Munich continues the praise: “The strength of spider dragline silk exceeds that of any material produced in laboratories, by far.” We should take a moment to consider what the spider has to do:
Spider threads consist of long chains of thousands of repeating sequences of protein molecules. These silk proteins are stored in the silk gland in a highly concentrated form until they are needed. The long chains with their repeating sequences of protein molecules are initially unordered and must not get too close to each other as they would immediately clump up. Only in the spinning passage, just before being used, are the threads oriented parallel to each other and form so-called micro crystallites that are, in turn, assembled to stable threads with cross links.
Superlatives for spider silk’s “extraordinary characteristics” continue throughout the article, alongside laments about how difficult they are to duplicate. Even the scary black widow was honored for its silk. Slow progress in creating synthetic silk is being made for children wishing to someday become a real Spider-Man….
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