Researchers working to design new materials that are durable, lightweight and environmentally sustainable are increasingly looking to natural composites, such as bone, for inspiration: Bone is strong and tough because its two constituent materials, soft collagen protein and stiff hydroxyapatite mineral, are arranged in complex hierarchical patterns that change at every scale of the composite, from the micro up to the macro.
While researchers have come up with hierarchical structures in the design of new materials, going from a computer model to the production of physical artifacts has been a persistent challenge. This is because the hierarchical structures that give natural composites their strength are self-assembled through electrochemical reactions, a process not easily replicated in the lab.
Now researchers at MIT have developed an approach that allows them to turn their designs into reality. In just a few hours, they can move directly from a multiscale computer model of a synthetic material to the creation of physical samples.
The collagen in bone is too soft and stretchy to serve as a structural material, and the mineral hydroxyapatite is brittle and prone to fracturing. Yet when the two combine, they form a remarkable composite capable of providing skeletal support for the human body. The hierarchical patterns help bone withstand fracturing by dissipating energy and distributing damage over a larger area, rather than letting the material fail at a single point.
The researchers created three synthetic composite materials, each of which is one-eighth inch thick and about 5-by-7 inches in size. The first sample simulates the mechanical properties of bone and nacre (also known as mother of pearl). This synthetic has a microscopic pattern that looks like a staggered brick-and-mortar wall: A soft black polymer works as the mortar, and a stiff blue polymer forms the bricks. Another composite simulates the mineral calcite, with an inverted brick-and-mortar pattern featuring soft bricks enclosed in stiff polymer cells. The third composite has a diamond pattern resembling snakeskin. This one was tailored specifically to improve upon one aspect of bone’s ability to shift and spread damage.
The team confirmed the accuracy of this approach by putting the samples through a series of tests to see if the new materials fracture in the same way as their computer-simulated counterparts. The samples passed the tests, validating the entire process and proving the efficacy and accuracy of the computer-optimized design. As predicted, the bonelike material proved to be the toughest overall.
According to the researcher, the process could be scaled up to provide a cost-effective means of manufacturing materials that consist of two or more constituents, arranged in patterns of any variation imaginable and tailored for specific functions in different parts of a structure. He hopes that eventually entire buildings might be printed with optimized materials that incorporate electrical circuits, plumbing and energy harvesting. “The possibilities seem endless, as we are just beginning to push the limits of the kind of geometric features and material combinations we can print,” Buehler says.
This story is reprinted from material from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.