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Designs in nature inspire new super material


Who has not heard of Superman? Fictional superheroes are people who have special gifts, powers, or strengths. One of my thoughts as a boy was to combine some of these strengths into an even more powerful superhero, but that’s all just stories and make believe. Turning to reality, which is sometimes as strange as fiction, research scientists recently made claims about a “non-cuttable material”, published in Scientific Reports.1

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Figure 1. Grapefruit skin is surprisingly resilient.

Strong and flexible

Scientists from Germany and the United Kingdom have looked carefully at a few strong and resilient items found in nature. One of these is abalone, an exceptionally tough, molluscan shell material, found in several groups of small to large sea snails (gastropods) of the family Haliotidae. Another, surprisingly enough, is grapefruit skin. Like other citrus fruits, the grapefruit skin does not easily break when dropped. That is because the skin is robust, but flexible—its design enables it to resist impact forces, by absorbing energy.

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Figure 2. Schematic of the microscopic structure of nacre layers.

Abalone, on the other hand, has a hard inner shell layer, called nacre, “made of hard aragonite tiles with an organic, flexible interlayer” (see figure 2).1 The structure is designed to resist attacks from its predators, since the abalone shellfish cannot escape quickly—it’s a snail after all. This survival mechanism allegedly “evolved over hundreds of millions of years”.1 This raises the question as to what defence system was used to protect against predators before this material existed.

Combining properties

Taking both the abalone shell and grapefruit skin as their inspiration, scientists combined the individual qualities of strength and flexibility of nacre, and the added flexibility/resilience of grapefruit skin, to form a new synthetic material which is “both highly deformable and ultra‐resistant to dynamic point loads”.1 In other words, it is flexible but has built in toughness to resist a moving force applied at a particular location. The hard component is provided by ceramic spheres, which reflect any vibrations to whatever causes them; i.e. the material resonates in such a way that it disarms the source of the continuous vibrations. The material’s flexible properties come from an aluminium ‘foam’, which contains the spheres. Thus, a matrix is manufactured that is the best of both worlds—flexible but very strong (see figure 3).

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Figure 3. Structure of Proteus.

What’s the application?

The scientists called their new material Proteus—from the word protean, which means versatile or changeable. Proteus has properties which make it suitable for the manufacture of high security doors and barriers or protective clothing. Impressively, it can resist the attacks of angle grinders (quickly wearing the discs down, although incisions can be made), drills, and powerful water jets. These are all ineffective at cutting this new material. It would require multiple grinder discs to conquer Proteus, and there is no indication whether (for instance) a laser would come out victorious. This would make an interesting follow-up experiment.

Creative copying

In a promotional video, the lead scientist describes abalone as a “system developed by nature”,2 as if nature somehow possessed intelligence and purposed to produce biomaterials (the fallacy of reification3). Engineers who subscribe to an evolutionary view of history sometimes forget the very creative essence of their work. Supposedly, unguided, evolutionary processes achieved amazing feats of ‘natural engineering’ in the past, all without a real engineer. Somehow, living things (like the abalone shellfish) survived millions of years without being at a disadvantage, while their high-tech biomaterials and survival mechanisms gradually developed.

Good engineers don’t work like this, they use forethought, planning, and intelligence, and if they didn’t, they would soon find themselves without a job! Rather than slowly evolving over eons of time through gradual trial-and-error processes, such ingenious systems were put together by the Ultimate Engineer, the Lord God. When engineers mimic biology, they ought to credit the Creator, rather than nature.

There are many scientists who already do this, when they recognise or copy design(s) in nature. Instead of paying lip service to an unguided evolutionary process as its originator, they give glory to the Creator of the heavens and the Earth.4,5

Published: 15 October 2020

References and notes

  1. Szyniszewski, S., et al., Non-cuttable material created through local resonance and strain rate effects, Scientific Reports 2020(10):11539, 20 July 2020 | doi:10.1038/s41598-020-65976-0. Return to text.
  2. The Engineer, Nature inspires Durham team to create non-cuttable material, theengineer.co.uk, 22 July 2020. Return to text.
  3. That is, to treat an abstract concept as a physical reality. Return to text.
  4. Burgess, S. and Statham, D., Inspiration from Creation: How engineers are copying God’s designs, Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, 2018. Return to text.
  5. Sarfati, J., By Design: Evidence for nature’s Intelligent Designer—the God of the Bible, Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, 2008. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Inspiration from Creation
by Professor Stuart Burgess & Dominic Statham
US $14.00
Soft cover