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?
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.
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.
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!
Beth, that's the first thing I thought when I saw the comparison with aluminum--whether this material might have apps in aircraft, either wings or other components, instead of or in addition to composites. I'm wondering the same thing about this material as Chuck mentioned, just exactly how it compares with aluminum in strength and stiffness, as well as shear.
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.
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.
Rob, that's an interesting chemistry question. Since this material only mimics an exoskeleton and is actually made of shrimp shells and silk, boric acid won't have the same effect on it. But it might also damage it.
And I agree with you, I think that one big method for reducing dependence on fossil fuels may be better materials.
Well, the boric acid was a joke -- and top of mind as I'm fighting a sugar ant infestation.
But to the point, the more I read your articles as well as articles about energy savings attempts in automotive and aerospace, over and over, it's the materials that matter. Plus, many of the newly develop materials are environmentally friendly in their own right.
Sorry I didn't get the joke, Rob, but I still think it's a valid question.
To my mind, the big question about so many of these new alternative materials is how sustainably they can be manufactured and whether they can be recycled in one fashion or another: whether that's biodegrading or being turned into fuel via a waste-to-energy process (and how bad or good those may be for the environment). Like you have often said, it's the whole lifecycle that must be considered.
Good point on the whole lifecycle consideration, Ann. I just did an short article for Green Scene that looks at efforts by Kraft Foods to improve sustainable all the way back to the farms that produce their raw materials.
The sustainability from raw materials through recycling is getting considered more often these days.
That whole consideration brings up the question of how EVs compare to traditional vehicles when you figure in the likelihood that the electricity is produced by burning coal.
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.
Well, I doubt that an abundance like being a waste product of shrimping would allow shrilk to replace plastics. On the other hand, it will be a while before it ramps up to that level and I wouldn't be surprised if the components were good candidates for synthesizing. That is an encouraging idea.
"Transparent aluminum" anyone?
On the EV front. I don't worry about the EVs running on coal produced electricity. The fact that electricity can be produced other ways makes EVs a step away from fossil fuel dependency. They are a link in the chain that is (at least nearly) solved. Solving the dependency of the source is a separate problem. When "carbon free" electricity is solved, the whole problem will be solved. Without EV's solving the electricity problem still leaves the vehicles to be solved.
Personally, I don't understand why more attention isn't being given to geothermal energy. We are sitting over 230,000,000,000 cubic miles of hot lava. That should be enough energy to last us a very long time (shoot, it is enough to vaporize the entire skin of the earth and everything on it without even burping), and with minimal environmental consequences. I know that we have to drill a very deep hole to get at it, so the investment isn't cheap. The technology to harvest it isn't trivial either (but it is fairly well understood). The results of the effort will be a nearly unlimited energy source. Why isn't it getting more press?
Also agreed. I think there are many avenues to pursue. I mentioned geothermal. Fusion would be great, if we can lick it. They all take a big investment, but many are doable. It is more a problem of will and investment than of possibility.
What I get tired of is people slamming EVs because the electricity comes from carbon sources. That is a temporary problem. That link in the carbon-free chain is solved. Instead of complaining about the temporary problems, let's solve the other links. Then the temporary problems go away, too.
SparkyWatt, I don't see why an abundance of shrimp shells and silk can't help replace plastic, since these are natural, renewable resources. Can you elaborate a bit on what you meant?
Otherwise, I think your comment about EVs' electricity coming from carbon producing sources being a temporary problem is an interesting one. It has also seemed to me that some of our solutions are bound to be interim, or based on interim energy sources, while we solve longer-term problems, and that solving those longer-term problems will eliminate the short-term ones.
Can you spell out more what you mean in this case? Why will this EV-related problem go away when we solve longer term problems, and which longer-term problems did you mean in this case?
On the plastics thing, there are two things about this that people often miss. First, not all plastics are petroleum products. Many of the plastics we use today (although not nearly most) are agricultural or forestry products. Products like this are renewable as well. The second issue has to do with supply and demand. Let's say that shrimp grow at a rate that will easily supply 30 pounds of meat or so per person per year. It is really probably several times that, but I am reasonably sure it isn't 10 times that. Now if you try to supply 100 pounds of tails and shells per person per year, you are vastly overfishing.
Renewable resources, properly managed, will continue to be available for the foreseeable future, but only at a particular rate. That is the general problem with solutions like ethanol, biodiesel, and bioplastics. They will be available forever, but only in limited quantities. Usually those limited quatities aren't enough. That is why I don't see Shrilk displacing plastics in the near future, even if it does live up to all of its promises. There just won't be enough materials available for it to take over.
The article talked about the materials being "abundantly available", and that is no doubt true when you look at it from the point of view of starting an industry and launching products. However, that is a long way from meeting our appetite for plastics.
On the EV's. The basic goal here is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Right now the fossil fuels are used in two major ways, electricity generation and transportation. To eliminate the use of fossil fuels, their use must be eliminated from BOTH major areas (as well as the minor ones that pop up here and there). EV's eliminate one of the major components of the transportation sector. Because they aren't completely efficient, they are TEMPORARILY driving up the use of fossil fuels; that is a temporary problem. The longer range problem that needs to be solved is electricity generation. When electricity is no longer based on fossil fuels, EV's won't drive the use of fossil fuels either. Problem solved.
SparkyWatt, thanks for the answers. I just interviewed Freedonia Group analyst regarding a bioplastics study they just completed and he pointed out that right now, bioplastics represent only about 1/1000 of the plastics we use. He said we're so far away from even putting a dent into plastics consumption with bio-alternatives that it doesn't make much sense to worry about how to reach those volumes. I tend to agree.
And I concur with your comments on EVs and fossil fuels.
I don't think we can ignore the volume issues juse because it is a new technology. While this might currently be seen as a proof of concept, the fact is that the long term plan is to make it more common rather than being used only as a special application. It would not make sense to go far down the development route and then say that we have this great product but the raw materials don't exist, so never mind.
Jack, I think that's a good point. But I believe the analyst's point was that it's better to start and do the research instead of not do it, and be stuck in the same boat, only now it's later and the need for replacements is even greater. I also get the impression that instead of a single answer, we're going to have multiple answers. I'd be pretty surprised if any individual bioplastic was suited either by volume or by its nature and characteristics, to substitute for all the petro-based plastics we currently use.
This sounds like a really useful material, although I did not fully understand about the degrading process. Even better is the source of material, totally renewable. OF course there is quite a transition to be made in going from a laboratory discovery to a commercially viable product.
But clearly there is a possibility for the stuff to find a niche application, at the least.
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