Skin-inspired, Self-healing Concrete

In what could be a boon to bridges in the U.S., which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a “C” grade in 2009, University of Michigan engineers have developed a bendable concrete that is capable of healing itself. The building material takes its design cues from human skin, which, when it sustains small cuts, scabs over, and relatively quickly repairs itself. Likewise, the new concrete is designed to--when deformed--break into small cracks rather than a single, large one. Regular exposure to water and carbon dioxide creates chemical scabs on the material in the form of calcium carbonate, a very strong compound that’s a key component of seashells.

Mother-of-Pearl Coating for Next-Gen Planes and Automobiles

Speaking of seashells, materials engineers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory looked beach-ward to come up with the idea for a composite ceramic that could end up in bulletproof vests, cars, and buildings of the future. Nacre (also known as mother-of-pearl)--the shiny coating on the inside of shells--doesn’t break easily due to its brick-and-mortar structure of calcium carbonate and the sugar chitin; it's also quite light. So materials scientists created ceramic that uses aluminum oxide as the brick and a polymer as the mortar to hold those pieces in place. It could also replace the aluminum alloys used in building planes.

Robot Uses Snail Propulsion

For a robot to navigate the heavily trafficked, labyrinthine passageways of hospitals and factories, a team of Japanese researchers Chuo University believes we need machines that can move in all directions without the slippage that can take place when travelling on wheels or the danger of being diverted by unexpected contact. To develop a robot with this set of traits (deemed the TORo II), the team looked to the humble snail. The creature uses a wave-like galloping motion to propel itself forward by using a combination of suction and friction aided by mucus to plant the front section of its feet, which will adhere to a variety of surfaces, and then pull the trunk of its body up to it.

Ghost Knifefish as Template for Underwater Robots

From omnidirectional on-land robots to underwater ones, the ghost knifefish’s ability to instantly switch from swimming forward and backward to going straight up, thanks a fin that recalls a ribbon on its underbelly is offering a template for ocean exploration. Currently, underwater robots are little more than submerged bathtubs, according to Malcolm MacIver, an engineer at Northwestern University. Using the ghost knifefish’s capabilities, MacIver and his team developed a bio-inspired robot, called GhostBot, with a similar appendage. They believe it could be used, among other tasks, for monitoring coral reefs or to plugging leaking underwater oil pipes.

Cooperative Bots Mimic Insect Swarms

A project that began in 2001 set out to replicate and utilize the cooperative behavior demonstrated by insects, such as ants, to work together to solve complex problems. Simple, so-called “Swarm-bots,” for instance, can self-assemble to move large objects, either by attaching to one another or around the object to move it. Other applications include using cooperative bots to sniff out bombs or drugs, to explore other planets, and for search-and-rescue efforts.

Glue a la Gecko Feet

The GEICO mascot and his ilk are able to walk up walls thanks to feet covered in millions of tiny hairs that branch off and have tiny little suction cup-type caps on them. Those hairs make essentially weak chemical bonds with surfaces that allow it to adhere and then pick up its feet with ease. Materials scientists at the University of Dayton and Georgia Tech mimicked it using carbon nanotubes--essentially microscopic carbon cylinders--creating an adhesive 10 times sticker than the lizard’s feet, but that you’ll still able to easily remove after they've been glued. Robots may one day use it to scale buildings, but it could also be a cheap alternative to soldering parts in electronics.

Aerodynamics As Seen Via A Butterfly

Birds and most butterflies adjust their wings to control their flight. (Watching pigeons adjust their flight paths inspired the Wright Brothers when designing their plane.) The swallowtail, however, is a butterfly with oversized wings and a relatively tiny body affords them little control over flight, meaning a simple low frequency flapping motion is the key to their flight. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Tokyo made a model ornithopter based on the swallowtail. Their study of the butterfly could lead to new aerodynamic control systems that allow for flight without overly sophisticated control mechanisms.

Calla Lily Leads To Flower-Inspired Power

The stunning spiral of the calla lily, an exotic flower native to southern Africa, inspired the company Pax Scientific, which makes fluid mixers, propellers and other machines that require fluid mechanics. The spiral shape of the calla lily allows for the flow with a liquid or gas with a lot less power required, meaning big time energy savings. An impeller, which increases the flow and pressure of a liquid, in the spiral shape is now the key component in a water turbine made by Pax.

Building from Nature: Biomimicry in Engineering

Machines can seem like the opposite of nature, but engineers and materials scientists are taking more and more cues from counterparts in the natural world, developing concrete that can bend and heal itself or robots that crawl through buildings like snails.

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