A team from the University of California, San Diego has taken inspiration from the tails of seahorses to create a new flexible material that could have a wide range of applications – including the creation of body armor. The amazing thing about seahorses—other than the fact that the male of the species gives birth—is that their tails can be compressed to about half its size before any permanent damage occurs. It is this flexibility that the UCSD team seeks to duplicate in their research.

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The team, which was led by UC San Diego materials science professors Joanna McKittrick and Marc Meyers, discovered that the seahorses’ tail is flexible due to its structure, which is made up of bony, armored plates, which are able to slide past each other. McKittrick and his team hope to replicate the design in order to create a polymer that could be used in medical devices, underwater exploration and unmanned bomb detection and detonation.

“The study of natural materials can lead to the creation of new and unique materials and structures inspired by nature that are stronger, tougher, lighter and more flexible,” said McKittrick, who is also a professor of materials science at theJacobs School of Engineeringat UC San Diego.

The team looked at a host of animals including armadillos, alligators and assorted fish before settling on the seahorse. “The tail is the seahorse’s lifeline because it allows the animal to anchor itself to corals or seaweed and hide from predators,” said Michael Porter, a Ph.D. student at the Jacobs School of Engineering. “But no one has looked at the seahorse’s tail and bones as a source of armor.”

The seahorse’s tail can be compressed by nearly 50% of its original width before permanent damage occurs, as the tail’s bony plates and muscles bear most of the load from the displacement. Even when the tail was compressed by as much as 60%, the seahorse’s spinal column was protected from permanent damage.

The research team treated a seahorse skeleton and found that the percentage of minerals in the plates was relatively low and while the plates had varying hardness, the grooves were porous and absorbed energy from impacts. By replicating this design, the team hope to use 3D printing to create artificial bony plates, which would then be equipped with polymers that would act as muscles.

“Everything in biology comes down to structures,” Porter said. Another winning example of bio-mimicry.

+ University of California, San Diego

via Discovery News

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