Project Squid Skin: Pentagon Gives $6 Million to Mimic Marine Life

giant cuttlefish

Biomimicry, or the emulation of nature to solve human problems, inspires some fascinating scientific research. Marine animals in particular are useful sources of information; last year, for example, MIT researchers began work on electronic screens and ink that use less than one hundredth the energy of traditional screens--and are based on the color-changing abilities of cuttlefish. Now the U.S. Department of Defense is giving a $6 million grant to researchers at Rice University and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole for "metamaterials" that mimic skin colors and patterns seen in sea creatures.

"This project will enable us to explore an exciting new avenue of vision research--distributed light sensing throughout the skin," said Roger Hanlon, a Woods Hole marine biologist, in a statement. "How and where that visual information is used by the nervous system is likely to uncover some novel neural circuitry."

The project, internally nicknamed "Project Squid Skin," will focus on two main areas: mimicking the regulation of skin patterns, colors and contrasts by cephalopods and the emulation of cephalopod skin using metamaterials. Specifically, the researchers hope to leverage patterns of organized nanostructures to create sheets of materials that quickly change colors (like the pixels in a high-definition TV screen) and "see" light like squid skins.

The research is still in preliminary stages, but we imagine that the Department of Defense hopes to gain some marine creature-inspired methods for military camouflage.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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