Since the dawn of time, nature has inspired us in so many ways. It has infiltrated our art, our architecture, and even our transportation. Now, nature is inspiring another front: armor.
Specifically, protective measures found in animal's biology are giving us a new perspective on how we create our own protective gear. Conch shells and fish scales are remarkably strong, while spider silk is both durable and elastic. Today, three labs are working with these materials to create the armor of tomorrow.
An alligator gar in an aquarium (Alligator Gar 10 by Greg Hume via Wikimedia Commons, used per provisions of CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.
The alligator gar's fish scales are strong. Like, really strong. In fact, its tough scales can't even be penetrated by many knives--to break through this animal's scales, you'll probably need a hacksaw. The scales' strength becomes even more evident when compared to those of other fish. Francois Barthelat of McGill University performed a test of the striped bass' and garfish's skin by poking a needle through them. The bass' scales buckled fairly easily, but the gar's skin was a whole different story.
Barthelat reports, “When we did the same tests on the garfish we just couldn’t go through the skin. The little needle would basically buckle and break."
From this, Barthelat and his colleagues have come to believe that synthetic gar scales would provide excellent protection for humans, too. They've begun developing multiple prototypes with these mock scales. One method they are using is 3D printing the scales onto strips of rubber. This method is perhaps the easiest to work with because of the (relative) simplicity it provides in tweaking different aspects of the scales for maximum protection. However, plastic isn't going to work in the long run.
As such, they are also working with scales made from ceramic, attached to Kevlar gloves. Realistically, these gloves would protect against many common sharp objects, but there are exceptions. Tiny needles could still technically work their way through the Kevlar, which is particularly hazardous for people sorting through large volumes of different materials.
All of the current "Gar-mor" prototypes are made out of aluminum oxide. Tests have shown protective gear using these scales to be nearly unable to be punctured. This type of scale could eventually be used in body armor and would be highly effective against stabbing--an important feature in today's world. Of course, there have been challenges with this design, like making the gloves flexible enough to actually use.
Regardless, while it would not be resilient enough to prevent gunshots, the prospects for this type of armor are bright.
The mighty conch
A conch shell (Sea shell (Trinidad & Tobago 2009) by cheesy42 via Wikimedia Commons, used per provisions of CC Attribution License 2.0.
Believe it or not, but those stunning, swirly conch shells scattered across gift shops everywhere and through which you can "hear the ocean" are remarkably sturdy.
The thing is, based on their makeup, they shouldn't be.
Conch shells are usually made out of a gelatinous protein and various chalk-like cells. You wouldn't expect something made out of such fragile materials to be so strong, right? Well, its strength comes not so much from the materials as from the structure of the shell itself. Markus Buehler, a scientist at MIT, states, “The actual material doesn’t matter—it’s the way the material is built together in forming these architectures.”
Thanks to major advances in 3D printing, researchers at MIT have been able to produce fairly accurate recreations of the conch's intricate shell structure. The polymer that they have thus produced has proven to resist fracturing--not only so, but it also distributes energy from an impact throughout the polymer, both necessary components for body armor.
Whenever the design of the polymer is perfected, scientists will likely use carbon fiber or ceramics made with the conch's shell structure in final designs for body armor. However, Buehler sees an application for sports helmets, too, which often provide too little protection against strong impacts.
With the current production model, making this conch armor will be financially unfeasible. Nonetheless, if 3D printers could be configured to use the actual conch shell materials as "ink," the material could be easily mass-produced. Another possibility is using specially engineered microbes to excrete the substance (though I'm personally rooting for the 3D printing method, 'cause that just sounds gross).
Silky smooth protection
An example of rope made from synthetic spider silk (via Geobeats News on Youtube)
Out of these three, synthetic spider silk is arguably the most promising. In the natural world, spider silk can snag insects thousands of times its weight without snapping--so it's clear why scientists want to make armor out of it.
Unlike the conch or even Kevlar, spider silk is both resilient and stretchy. For making armor, this makes it much more useful than other materials like nylon, which bends easily but doesn't provide much protection in and of itself. Synthetic spider silk, with a little genetic engineering, has the potential to be tougher than steel and replace Kevlar as the go-to choice for protective gear. In fact, the U.S. Army has contracted Kraig Biocraft Laboratories to develop this material, known as "Dragon Silk," for them to use in combat.
How are they doing it? In a distantly Jurassic-Park-style way, they've essentially created a silkworm-spider hybrid. By mixing in a dash of spider DNA with a silkworm's, the worms will produce spider silk instead of the normal silk we're used to. Jon Rice, Chief Operating Officer of Kraig, says this is the only practical way to do it (go figure):
“No one would ever want have to have a spider farm—that’s one, creepy, and two, very inefficient," he explains, since spiders have a tendency to eat each other.
In its current iteration, the synthetic spider silk is about 1/18 the thickness of one of our hairs, and, according to Popular Science, "ten times more elastic" than Kevlar. When incorporated into body armor, this material will allow more range-of-motion for the wearer and, due to its elasticity, will hopefully take gun shots without a hitch. The only drawback is that, today, the silk is not quite is strong as Kevlar. Nonetheless, Rice says that they'll be able to modify certain properties of the silk, such as the durability, if needed. And, with the possibility of getting the price down to reasonable levels, Dragon Silk is well on its way to becoming the next big thing in protective gear.
In fact, I would feel pretty safe wearing any of these materials--especially because nature beat us to them. If the animals kept them for this long, I'd trust 'em.
Comment below: Which material would you want in your armor, if any? Why or why not?
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I'm a sci-fi/fantasy lover & writer who especially likes talking about Star Wars and futuristic tech. I like finding new things & finding the beauty in old things, especially in my "Everyday Snippets" series. I hope you'll join me on my blog and unleash your imagination!