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Taking Inspirations from Nature to Design Functional Composite Materials

   The extraordinary capabilities of Nature have long inspired human research through. Since the dawn of humanity, people have attempted to recreate what they see in nature; one of the most ancient examples is flight. More recent examples include the climbing ability of lizards as well as the high toughness and strength of biomaterials. Despite intensive studies into these areas, researchers have not been able to develop synthetic equivalents by simply mimicking what is seen in Nature. To create successful bio-inspired materials, it is important to understand the underlying principles which result in successful biological systems, and we have used this methodology to research two topics: the development of bio-inspired high strength reversible adhesives, and extremely tough, hydrogel composites. Inspired by the high cling force yet easy release of gecko adhesive pads, our first topic will introduce a simple scaling theory for biological adhesives. From this equation, we have developed adhesives which can achieve over 300 kg of load with less than 1 kg release force. Secondly, we will aim to create materials inspired by ligaments and tendons, biological tissues which possess both high stiffness and flexibility, yet contain water. Most synthetic hydrogels have very low stiffness and are extremely brittle. Recent developments in hydrogel research have resulted in a variety of “tough” hydrogels; however, to achieve large energy dissipation, they must undergo significant strain. Through the development of fiber-hydrogel composites, we have developed materials which possess many mechanical similarities to ligaments and tendons, and dissipate dramatically large amounts of energy. These materials will find use not only as synthetic biomaterials, but also for commercial applications such as tear-resistant clothing. Just as airplanes differ significantly from birds, our composites differ visually from their source of inspiration, but achieve the same goal mechanically. By understanding the characteristics which control material properties, we can learn from nature to make cutting-edge new materials for a variety of applications.

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