Mimicking Solutions in Nature to Improve Structural Performance

Engineers are always searching for innovative solutions to address the needs of clients and to answer global issues. Through the study of biomimicry, engineers apply sustainable design principles based on those already perfected in nature. Examples of this “bio-push” include the invention of solar cells inspired by plant leaves and the creation of high-strength fibers developed from spider silk, which may have applications in high-performance technical textiles, sporting goods, medical textiles, or surgical products.

Purdue University’s Pablo Zavattieri, assistant professor of civil engineering with a courtesy appointment in mechanical engineering, is studying marine life to find a solution for the creation of stronger structural materials. “Materials in nature not only satisfy a structural function in many remarkable ways, but they also sense, adapt, and self-heal,” Zavattieri says. “Nature builds strong and tough materials using modest building blocks.”

By studying how the nacreous (thick inner) layer of an abalone shell is able to have toughness, strength, and stiffness simultaneously, Zavattieri’s long-term goal is to create stronger walls and structural components of bridges, roads, and buildings that can save energy and “self-heal” or adapt during natural disasters. The concept for these multifunctional materials and other ideas were also inspired by his discussions with biologists, materials scientists, chemists, physicists, and other engineers working on structural challenges.

Zavattieri, who has a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering and a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics, previously received a National Science Foundation Career award to explore some of the bold and innovative ideas regarding to biomimetics. I was fortunate to hear about his more recent research during the Purdue University School of Civil Engineering Advisory Council meeting on April 12, 2013. As a member of the Advisory Council, I provide advice and counsel to the School of Civil Engineering on industry trends and opportunities for civil engineering students, graduates, and faculty. However, at this particular meeting, it was I who learned some new and valuable information about advancements in engineering from Zavattieri, who spoke during the session.

During his presentation, Zavattieri discussed the lessons engineers can learn from marine life. The abalone shell, specifically, is composed of fracture resistant materials. The nacre of an abalone shell is a tough and ductile bio-composite that is optimized for tension through a well-designed microstructure based on sliding, locking “tablets” that distribute damage or strain while upholding their toughness. According to Zavattieri, such advanced, high-performance materials will be essential for future human well-being and will be the foundation for emerging technologies. The study of biomimetics helps address this critical need.

Read more about Zavattieri and other innovative engineers here.