When it comes to material design, Mother Nature has something of an advantage over modern science. After all, Her research and development cycle is measured in millions of years.
Scientists at Northeastern University's College of Engineering are looking at a particular aspect of evolution in their latest project. It's the idea of "dermal modification," or the way in which a species' skin evolves to provide survival benefits - armor, camouflage, thermal regulation and sensory capacity.
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Specifically, the research team is studying the scales of snakes, fish and butterflies to design the next generation of armor systems.
Fish and snake scales, for instance, provide a balance of mobility and protection that's been optimized over millions of years, thanks to natural selection. The tiny scales on butterfly wings, meanwhile, have specific optical properties that could be useful for camouflage and other elements of body armor design.
The researchers are bringing emerging technology to bear on the challenge of approximating nature's handiwork. Using 3-D printing, the team has created models of fish scales that –when embedded into an armor's substrate - can be used to make armor lighter, stronger and more flexible.
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Ranajay Ghosh, an associate research scientist in the College of Engineering at Northeastern, says the design approach - sometimes called biomimetics or biomimicry - is an increasingly important area of research.
"The next generation of armor systems are light, perform a lot of functions, and at the same time do not compromise on protection," Ghosh writes on the university project page. "And nature provides very important information in terms of armor development."
The lab plans to continue testing with a focus on fish scales' protective properties, and eventually hopes to combine the properties of several different animal scales into one armor system.
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