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Materials & Assembly

'Shrilk' Mimics Insect Exoskeleton

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Beth Stackpole
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Biomimickry an important design principle
Beth Stackpole   1/4/2012 6:21:13 AM
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Biomimickry, where scientists apply principles found in nature to solve modern-day engineering problems, is a fascinating approach and one that I think we'll see far more of--not just in research labs, but in the R&D labs of commercial companies. This Shrilk seems to have some real promise. It is just in the early R&D pilot stages or are there any medical product companies experimenting with it as a more effective replacement to existing offerings or perhaps as a muse for creating new ones?

Rob Spiegel
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Impressive material
Rob Spiegel   1/4/2012 11:59:54 AM
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Fascinating article, Ann. I would imagine there are a wide range of potential uses for a strong and lightweight material. Interesting they took insect exoskeleton as a model for a new material.


Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Impressive material
Ann R. Thryft   1/4/2012 12:37:51 PM
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Isn't this cool? I admit, this was a fun one to find and write up. Beth, it's still in R&D, fresh out of the lab, and I heard no hint of how long it may take to be commercialized. Medical applications are definitely one possibility the researchers mentioned. Rob, the fact that it's as tough as aluminum and weighs half as much, and is chemically resistant is what caught my eye, as well as the different thickness/flexibility formulations possible just by changing the amount of water. These lead me to believe that it may have applications in industrial, automotive and aerospace machinery.


Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Biomimickry an important design principle
Alexander Wolfe   1/4/2012 12:56:30 PM
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That's a very important observation about biomimickry, Beth. I've frequently mention that the biological revolution will be to the 21st century with that electrical and electronics revoltion was to the late 19th and 20th centuries. But I've never connected the two. This exoskeleton story augers well for new materials for design engineers, not only in products but perhaps as lightweight construction materials. The ultimate lightweight airplane wings, for example.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Biomimickry an important design principle
Ann R. Thryft   1/4/2012 1:11:44 PM
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Lightweight airplane wings are one of the possibilities I had in mind, too when I first saw this, and not only because the researchers started with the proposition of recreating an insect wing's material. It was the comparison with aluminum that caught my eye, since that comparison is so often made by composite manufacturers, especially in aerospace apps.


Beth Stackpole
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Re: Biomimickry an important design principle
Beth Stackpole   1/4/2012 4:49:05 PM
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I would think lots of applications in aerospace because afterall aircraft wings are in really no more than a biomimickry interpretation of bird's wings. Maybe this material, once it evolves and is commercialized, can give composites a run for the money!

Dave Palmer
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Re: Biomimickry an important design principle
Dave Palmer   1/4/2012 5:17:18 PM
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Ann, thanks for another interesting article.  Beth, you are absolutely right about biomimickry ("biomimetics" is the fancy word for this).

As Ann's article points out, the key to getting the strength and toughness of insect cuticle was reproducing the lamellar structure, with hard (chitosan) and soft (fibroin) layers.  Many biological materials are able to achieve amazing properties through the proper arrangement of hard and soft segments.  Perhaps even more amazing, these materials are self-assembled at the molecular level!

There is a lot of fascinating work going on in materials engineering departments related to the structure and properties of biological materials.  Dr. Marc Meyers and his group at UC-San Diego have done some very interesting work on clam shells, toucan beaks, and armadillo armor, among other materials.

There is also a lot of fasinating work attempting to create new materials based on principles found in nature.  Dr. Robert Ritchie of UC-Berkley gave an interesting presentation at last year's Materials Science and Technology conference in Columbus about work he has been doing using ice templates to create polymer-ceramic composites with structures based on mother-of-pearl.  These materials are incredibly tough, tougher than many aluminum alloys.

Molecular self-assembly of strong, tough, lightweight, nanostructured materials is something which we, as materials engineers, would love to be able to do.  Our bodies, and the natural world around us, do it every day, yet we are only just beginning to learn how it's done.

Charles Murray
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Sci-fi material
Charles Murray   1/4/2012 10:58:12 PM
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This looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. I wonder how it stacks up against aluminum in terms of shear and bending capacity.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Sci-fi material
Alexander Wolfe   1/5/2012 9:16:58 AM
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This story also puts me in mind of the upcoming Medical Design & Manufacturing conference in Feb. (Link is here.) Not intending this to be a promo for the show, but it's about medical devices and of course miniaturization is the big trend in that area, and anything enabling strong but small packaging will/could be a significant driver of new product development.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Impressive material
Rob Spiegel   1/5/2012 9:24:12 AM
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Impressive material. Just have to keep it away from boric acid (that's the insecticide that kills ants by harming the exoskeleton). 

I could imagine an unlimited number of uses. From your articles, I'm beginning to think that one strategy for energy use reduction and sustainability is going to be advances in materials.

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