Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Deep-Sea Snail Shell Could Inspire Better Body Armor

Via (Wired Science) -

A deep-sea snail wears a multilayered suit of armor, complete with iron, new research shows. Dissecting details of the shell’s structure could inspire tough new materials for use in everything from body armor to scratch-free paint.

“If you look at the individual properties of the bits and pieces that go into making this shell, they’re not very impressive,” comments Robert Ritchie of the University of California, Berkeley. “But the overall thing is.”

The snail, called the scaly-foot gastropod, was discovered nearly a decade ago living in a hydrothermal vent field in the Indian Ocean. In its daily life, the snail encounters extreme temperatures, high pressures and high acidity levels that threaten to dissolve its protective shell. Worse, it is hunted by crabs that try to crush the mollusk between strong claws.

To understand how the valiant gastropod holds up to these trials, Christine Ortiz of MIT and her colleagues used nanoscale experiments and computer simulations to dig in to the shell’s structure. Many other species’ shells exhibit what Ortiz calls “mechanical property amplification,” in which the whole material is hundreds of times stronger than the sum of its parts.


Ortiz hopes that studying the snail’s shell could one day lead to improved materials for armor or helmets for people. Studying organisms that have been optimized for extreme environments through millions of years of evolution could offer ideas that engineers would never think of on their own, she says.

But it will probably be a while, Ritchie cautions. His lab built a ceramic material based on mother-of-pearl in 2008.

“I’m a great fan of this kind of research, but the next step is the critical one. Can you actually harness that information and make a synthetic structure in its image which has the same properties?” he asks. “That’s the most difficult step.”

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