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Scientists from the University of Cambridge have recreated mother of pearl for the first time. Also known as nacre, the material is responsible for the iridescent coating found in the lining of certain mollusks. (Pearls form when nacre is deposited around an invading foreign substance.) Mimicking the structure, mechanical behavior, and optical appearance of the material wasn’t easy. The scientists had to reproduce the biological steps that form natural nacre in invertebrates such as oysters, mussels, and abalone.

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Chief among the steps is preventing calcium carbonate, the principal component of nacre, from crystallizing prematurely when precipitating from the solution. The researchers use a mixture of ions and organic components that allow the precipitate to be adsorbed onto various surfaces, forming layers of well-defined thickness. The precipitate layer is then coated with an organic layer with 10-nanometer-wide pores, using a procedure pioneered by Alex Finnemore, co-author of the study that appeared in the July 25, 2012 edition of Nature Communications. Finally, crystallization is induced and every step repeated to build a stack of alternating crystalline and organic layers.

Although many composite engineering materials outperform nacre, it could result in innovative coating applications.

“Crystals have a characteristic shape that reflects their atomic structure, and it is very difficult to modify this shape,” says Ulli Steiner, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge. “Nature is, however, able to do this, and through our research we were able to gain insight into how it grows these materials. Essentially, we have created a new recipe for mother of pearl using nature’s cookbook.”

Although many composite engineering materials outperform nacre, according to Finnemore, its synthesis at ambient temperatures in an aqueous environment, along with its cheap ingredients, could result in innovative coating applications. “Once optimized, the process is simple and can easily be automated,” he adds.

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+ University of Cambridge