Inspired by nature (Day 87)

Inspired by nature (Day 87)

22nd August 2014

Sea Urchins have the ability to convert CO2 to calcium carbonate

Have you noticed how often nature inspires technological advancements? It's something that chemical engineers are very adept at and have made a series of recent discoveries that have great potential.

Research by Newcastle University in the UK found that nickel nanoparticles on the exoskeletons of Sea Urchin larvae gave them the ability to convert CO2 to calcium carbonate. The finding has the potential to help mitigate climate change.

Gut -clinging worm inspires medical dressing

In America, researchers  were inspired by a gut-clinging worm with a proboscis that swells to develop a new approach to healing and protecting wounds normally treated with sutures, staples and adhesive dressings.

The result is a ‘microneedle patch’ which grafts itself to the damaged area. When the tips of microneedles contact a wet tissue they swell creating a mechanical lock, which minimises tissue damage.

A special adaptation by a tropical carnivorous plant – the pitcher plant - has the ability to repel liquids and contaminants with important applications to industry and everyday life, including helping to stop the formation of life-threatening bacteria on medical instruments, ice build-up on air planes, fouling on ship hulls, anti-corrosion and the efficient transportation of products like crude oil by pipeline.

Pitcher plants have the ability to repel liquids and contaminants with important applications to industry and everyday life.

One of the latest opportunities has been inspired by the humble mussel and its ability to cling to rocks even under the most turbulent and watery conditions. It's a feature which has the potential to develop self-healing polymers in wet and damp conditions.

Generally, the presence of water limits the ability of an adhesive to stay tacky,so even polymers that can self-heal under dry conditions are frustrated from doing so underwater. However, a protein secreted by mussels has the ability to penetrate that superficial liquid layer and adhere to the underlying surface.

A team at the University of California Santa Barbara, including the chemical engineering department, found that the protein secreted by mussels has a high percentage of catechol - an organic compound that occurs widely throughout nature but its occurrence in proteins is rare. The researchers identified that the intermolecular hydrogen bonds between catechols could overcome that layer and initiate the self-healing.

These findings could result in a wide variety of applications, from industrial to medical. Under the right conditions, materials regularly exposed to water, such as piers and boat hulls, can be repaired with less effort and time.

Self-healing surfaces in wet environments, such as some industrial manufacturing components, could be replaced less often. Implants that undergo large amounts of wear and tear, such as hip and knee replacements, would require less, if any, surgery to maintain. Even brittle bones with hairline cracks could be reinforced with the appropriate self-healing polymer.

Congratulations to all the chemical engineers who have been involved with these recent developments.


Are you a chemical engineer that is working on a project inspired by nature? Contact us and tell us your story.