Science has forever tried to emulate nature. From lamps that rely on bio-luminescence to generate light, all the way, to man-made photosynthetic leaves, researchers, across the world, are incessantly looking for ways to reproduce the complex, and often life-sustaining, mechanisms typical of the natural world. One such project is currently underway at the Boston-based Northeastern University. Inspired by the multi-functional credentials of animal scales, the research team, at the College of Engineering, is in the process of developing lightweight, yet robust armor systems. With further advancements in technology, the group hopes to assimilate the properties of butterfly, fish and even snake scales into a high-tech protective shield.
Central to the research is the concept of “dermal modification”, a complicated and time-consuming process by which an animal’s skin adapts to its changing environment. Integral to a species’ survival quotient, the scales provide a multitude of benefits, including camouflage, insulation, armor and sensory capacity. Both fish and snake scales facilitate mobility, while at the same time protecting the body from external danger. On the other hand, the minute scales, present on butterfly wings, aid in camouflage and concealment. Unlike previous studies that have dealt primarily with the physical characteristics of scales, the scientists, at Northeastern, are trying to examine how changes in their size and material can alter their properties. Ranajay Ghosh, a research scientist at the university, said:
The next generation of armor systems are light, perform a lot of functions, and at the same time do not compromise on protection. And nature provides very important information in terms of armor development. This is very different from what people have been working on before, which is focusing on the very nature of the scales themselves, how they will behave, and whether they break easily or not. Here, our focus is simply the effect of simple scales and their mutual contact and interaction with the soft substrate.
Recently published in the Applied Physics Letters journal, the research has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as the Qatar Foundation. The experiment, governed by the principles of biomimicry, actually aims to include the properties of fish scales into the armor design. Thanks to the wonders of 3D-printing, the team has successfully created artificial variants of fish scales. According to the scientists, embedding the scales at particular places in the soft substrate renders it impervious and rigid. This approach allows them to craft lightweight, flexible and robust armor systems.
Using nano-fabrication and 3D-printing, the team, led by Ashkan Vaziri, hopes to integrate the properties of other animal scales into its armor design. According to Ghosh, their aim is to create protective armors, that are also capable of withstanding severe impacts and temperatures. He said:
We found that as long as the scale material is at least an order of magnitude stiffer than the skin material, perceptible benefits can begin to accrue. Many scales are optimized for different and often distinct purposes – protection (e.g. some fishes), mobility (snakes) or coloration (butterfly) depending on maximizing the probability of survival and replication. In principle, we can have a protective system which combines the protective functions of a fish scale with the mobility advantage of snake scale with the optical properties of butterfly scales. Modern armor would be more successful if we have an easier handle on different properties from as few design variables as possible. This reduction is possible when we discover a deeper underlying principle which makes natural dermal scale modifications so widespread and ancient. We can synthesize what nature could not do because we have more flexibility with the materials we use.
To know more about the project, check the journal’s website.