Tag Archives: bio-inspired engineering

New semiconductor material from pigment produced by fungi?

Chlorociboria Aeruginascens fungus on a tree log. (Image: Oregon State University)

Apparently the pigment derived from the fungi you see in the above picture is used by visual artists and, perhaps soon, will be used by electronics manufacturers. From a June 5, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at Oregon State University are looking at a highly durable organic pigment, used by humans in artwork for hundreds of years, as a promising possibility as a semiconductor material.

Findings suggest it could become a sustainable, low-cost, easily fabricated alternative to silicon in electronic or optoelectronic applications where the high-performance capabilities of silicon aren’t required.

Optoelectronics is technology working with the combined use of light and electronics, such as solar cells, and the pigment being studied is xylindein.

A June 5, 2018 Oregon State University news release by Steve Lundeberg, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Xylindein is pretty, but can it also be useful? How much can we squeeze out of it?” said Oregon State University [OSU] physicist Oksana Ostroverkhova. “It functions as an electronic material but not a great one, but there’s optimism we can make it better.”

Xylindien is secreted by two wood-eating fungi in the Chlorociboria genus. Any wood that’s infected by the fungi is stained a blue-green color, and artisans have prized xylindein-affected wood for centuries.

The pigment is so stable that decorative products made half a millennium ago still exhibit its distinctive hue. It holds up against prolonged exposure to heat, ultraviolet light and electrical stress.

“If we can learn the secret for why those fungi-produced pigments are so stable, we could solve a problem that exists with organic electronics,” Ostroverkhova said. “Also, many organic electronic materials are too expensive to produce, so we’re looking to do something inexpensively in an ecologically friendly way that’s good for the economy.”

With current fabrication techniques, xylindein tends to form non-uniform films with a porous, irregular, “rocky” structure.

“There’s a lot of performance variation,” she said. “You can tinker with it in the lab, but you can’t really make a technologically relevant device out of it on a large scale. But we found a way to make it more easily processed and to get a decent film quality.”

Ostroverkhova and collaborators in OSU’s colleges of Science and Forestry blended xylindein with a transparent, non-conductive polymer, poly(methyl methacrylate), abbreviated to PMMA and sometimes known as acrylic glass. They drop-cast solutions both of pristine xylindein and a xlyindein-PMMA blend onto electrodes on a glass substrate for testing.

They found the non-conducting polymer greatly improved the film structure without a detrimental effect on xylindein’s electrical properties. And the blended films actually showed better photosensitivity.

“Exactly why that happened, and its potential value in solar cells, is something we’ll be investigating in future research,” Ostroverkhova said. “We’ll also look into replacing the polymer with a natural product – something sustainable made from cellulose. We could grow the pigment from the cellulose and be able to make a device that’s all ready to go.

“Xylindein will never beat silicon, but for many applications, it doesn’t need to beat silicon,” she said. “It could work well for depositing onto large, flexible substrates, like for making wearable electronics.”

This research, whose findings were recently published in MRS Advances, represents the first use of a fungus-produced material in a thin-film electrical device.

“And there are a lot more of the materials,” Ostroverkhova said. “This is just first one we’ve explored. It could be the beginning of a whole new class of organic electronic materials.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fungi-Derived Pigments for Sustainable Organic (Opto)Electronics by Gregory Giesbers, Jonathan Van Schenck, Sarath Vega Gutierrez, Sara Robinson. MRS Advances https://doi.org/10.1557/adv.2018.446 Published online: 21 May 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Spider glue

Caption: An orb spider, glue-maker extraordinaire, at work on a web. Credit: The University of Akron

Scientists are taking inspiration from spiders in their quest to develop better adhesives. (Are they abandoning the gecko? Usually when scientists study adhesiveness, there’s talk of geckos. From a June 5, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Ever wonder why paint peels off the wall during summer’s high humidity? It’s the same reason that bandages separate from skin when we bathe or swim.

Interfacial water, as it’s known, forms a slippery and non-adhesive layer between the glue and the surface to which it is meant to stick, interfering with the formation of adhesive bonds between the two.

Overcoming the effects of interfacial water is one of the challenges facing developers of commercial adhesives.

To find a solution, researchers at The University of Akron (UA) are looking to one of the strongest materials found in nature: spider silk.

The sticky glue that coats the silk threads of spider webs is a hydrogel, meaning it is full of water. One would think, then, that spiders would have difficulty catching prey, especially in humid conditions — but they do not. In fact, their sticky glue, which has been a subject of intensive research for years, is one of the most effective biological glues in all of nature.

A June 4, 2018 University of Akron news release (also on EurekAlert published on June 5, 2018), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

So how is spider glue able to stick in highly humid conditions?

That question was the subject of investigation by UA graduate students Saranshu Singla, Gaurav Amarpuri and Nishad Dhopatkar, who have been working with Dr. Ali Dhinojwala, interim dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, and Dr. Todd Blackledge, professor of biology in the Integrated Bioscience program. Both professors are principal investigators in UA’s Biomimicry Research Innovation Center [BRIC], which specializes in emulating biological forms, processes, patterns and systems to solve technical challenges.

The team’s findings, which may provide the clue to developing stronger commercial adhesives, can be read in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Singla and her colleagues set out to examine the secret behind the success of the common orb spider (Larinioides cornutus) glue and uncover how it overcomes the primary obstacle of achieving good adhesion in the humid conditions where water could be present between the glue and the target surface.

To investigate the processes involved, the team took orb spider glue, set it on sapphire substrate, then examined it using a combination of interface-sensitive spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy.

Spider glue is made of three elements: two specialized glycoproteins, a collection of low molecular mass organic and inorganic compounds (LMMCs), and water. The LMMCs are hygroscopic (water-attracting), which keeps the glue soft and tacky to stick.

Singla and her team discovered that these glycoproteins act as primary binding agents to the surface. Glycoprotein-based glues have been identified in several other biological glues, such as fungi, algae, diatoms, sea stars, sticklebacks and English ivy.

But why doesn’t the water present in the spider glue interfere with the adhesive contact the way it does with most synthetic adhesives?

The LMMCs, the team concluded, perform a previously unknown function of sequestering interfacial water, preventing adhesive failure.

Singla and colleagues determined that it is the interaction of glycoproteins and LMMCs that governs the adhesive quality of the glue produced, with the respective proportions varying across species, thus optimizing adhesive strength to match the relative humidity of spider habitat.

“The hygroscopic compounds – known as water-absorbers – in spider glue play a previously unknown role in moving water away from the boundary, thereby preventing failure of spider glue at high humidity,” explained Singla.

The ability of the spider glue to overcome the problem of interfacial water by effectively absorbing it is the key finding of the research, and the one with perhaps the strongest prospect for commercial development.

“Imagine a paint that is guaranteed for life, come rain or shine,” Singla remarked.

All thanks to your friendly neighborhood spider glue.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Hygroscopic compounds in spider aggregate glue remove interfacial water to maintain adhesion in humid conditions by Saranshu Singla, Gaurav Amarpuri, Nishad Dhopatkar, Todd A. Blackledge, & Ali Dhinojwala. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1890 (2018) Published 22 May 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04263-z

This paper is open access.

Stronger than steel and spider silk: artificial, biodegradable, cellulose nanofibres

This is an artificial and biodegradable are two adjectives you don’t usually see united by the conjunction, and. However, it is worth noting that the artificial material is initially derived from a natural material, cellulose. Here’s more from a May 16, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

At DESY’s [Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron] X-ray light source PETRA III, a team led by Swedish researchers has produced the strongest bio-material that has ever been made. The artifical, but bio-degradable cellulose fibres are stronger than steel and even than dragline spider silk, which is usually considered the strongest bio-based material. The team headed by Daniel Söderberg from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reports the work in the journal ACS Nano of the American Chemical Society.

A May 16, 2018 DESY press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The ultrastrong material is made of cellulose nanofibres (CNF), the essential building blocks of wood and other plant life. Using a novel production method, the researchers have successfully transferred the unique mechanical properties of these nanofibres to a macroscopic, lightweight material that could be used as an eco-friendly alternative for plastic in airplanes, cars, furniture and other products. “Our new material even has potential for biomedicine since cellulose is not rejected by your body”, explains Söderberg.

The scientists started with commercially available cellulose nanofibres that are just 2 to 5 nanometres in diameter and up to 700 nanometres long. A nanometre (nm) is a millionth of a millimetre. The nanofibres were suspended in water and fed into a small channel, just one millimetre wide and milled in steel. Through two pairs of perpendicular inflows additional deionized water and water with a low pH-value entered the channel from the sides, squeezing the stream of nanofibres together and accelerating it.

This process, called hydrodynamic focussing, helped to align the nanofibres in the right direction as well as their self-organisation into a well-packed macroscopic thread. No glue or any other component is needed, the nanofibres assemble into a tight thread held together by supramolecular forces between the nanofibres, for example electrostatic and Van der Waals forces.

With the bright X-rays from PETRA III the scientists could follow and optimise the process. “The X-rays allow us to analyse the detailed structure of the thread as it forms as well as the material structure and hierarchical order in the super strong fibres,” explains co-author Stephan Roth from DESY, head of the Micro- and Nanofocus X-ray Scattering Beamline P03 where the threads were spun. “We made threads up to 15 micrometres thick and several metres in length.”

Measurements showed a tensile stiffness of 86 gigapascals (GPa) for the material and a tensile strength of 1.57 GPa. “The bio-based nanocellulose fibres fabricated here are 8 times stiffer and have strengths higher than natural dragline spider silk fibres,” says Söderberg. “If you are looking for a bio-based material, there is nothing quite like it. And it is also stronger than steel and any other metal or alloy as well as glass fibres and most other synthetic materials.” The artificial cellulose fibres can be woven into a fabric to create materials for various applications. The researchers estimate that the production costs of the new material can compete with those of strong synthetic fabrics. “The new material can in principle be used to create bio-degradable components,” adds Roth.

The study describes a new method that mimics nature’s ability to accumulate cellulose nanofibres into almost perfect macroscale arrangements, like in wood. It opens the way for developing nanofibre material that can be used for larger structures while retaining the nanofibres’ tensile strength and ability to withstand mechanical load. “We can now transform the super performance from the nanoscale to the macroscale,” Söderberg underlines. “This discovery is made possible by understanding and controlling the key fundamental parameters essential for perfect nanostructuring, such as particle size, interactions, alignment, diffusion, network formation and assembly.” The process can also be used to control nanoscale assembly of carbon tubes and other nano-sized fibres.

(There are some terminology and spelling issues, which are described at the end of this post.)

Let’s get back to a material that rivals spider silk and steel for strength (for some reason that reminded me of an old carnival game where you’d test your strength by swinging a mallet down on a ‘teeter-totter-like’ board and sending a metal piece up a post to make a bell ring). From a May 16, 2018 DESY press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

The ultrastrong material is made of cellulose nanofibres (CNF), the essential building blocks of wood and other plant life. Using a novel production method, the researchers have successfully transferred the unique mechanical properties of these nanofibres to a macroscopic, lightweight material that could be used as an eco-friendly alternative for plastic in airplanes, cars, furniture and other products. “Our new material even has potential for biomedicine since cellulose is not rejected by your body”, explains Söderberg.

The scientists started with commercially available cellulose nanofibres that are just 2 to 5 nanometres in diameter and up to 700 nanometres long. A nanometre (nm) is a millionth of a millimetre. The nanofibres were suspended in water and fed into a small channel, just one millimetre wide and milled in steel. Through two pairs of perpendicular inflows additional deionized water and water with a low pH-value entered the channel from the sides, squeezing the stream of nanofibres together and accelerating it.

This process, called hydrodynamic focussing, helped to align the nanofibres in the right direction as well as their self-organisation into a well-packed macroscopic thread. No glue or any other component is needed, the nanofibres assemble into a tight thread held together by supramolecular forces between the nanofibres, for example electrostatic and Van der Waals forces.

With the bright X-rays from PETRA III the scientists could follow and optimise the process. “The X-rays allow us to analyse the detailed structure of the thread as it forms as well as the material structure and hierarchical order in the super strong fibres,” explains co-author Stephan Roth from DESY, head of the Micro- and Nanofocus X-ray Scattering Beamline P03 where the threads were spun. “We made threads up to 15 micrometres thick and several metres in length.”

Measurements showed a tensile stiffness of 86 gigapascals (GPa) for the material and a tensile strength of 1.57 GPa. “The bio-based nanocellulose fibres fabricated here are 8 times stiffer and have strengths higher than natural dragline spider silk fibres,” says Söderberg. “If you are looking for a bio-based material, there is nothing quite like it. And it is also stronger than steel and any other metal or alloy as well as glass fibres and most other synthetic materials.” The artificial cellulose fibres can be woven into a fabric to create materials for various applications. The researchers estimate that the production costs of the new material can compete with those of strong synthetic fabrics. “The new material can in principle be used to create bio-degradable components,” adds Roth.

The study describes a new method that mimics nature’s ability to accumulate cellulose nanofibres into almost perfect macroscale arrangements, like in wood. It opens the way for developing nanofibre material that can be used for larger structures while retaining the nanofibres’ tensile strength and ability to withstand mechanical load. “We can now transform the super performance from the nanoscale to the macroscale,” Söderberg underlines. “This discovery is made possible by understanding and controlling the key fundamental parameters essential for perfect nanostructuring, such as particle size, interactions, alignment, diffusion, network formation and assembly.” The process can also be used to control nanoscale assembly of carbon tubes and other nano-sized fibres.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Multiscale Control of Nanocellulose Assembly: Transferring Remarkable Nanoscale Fibril Mechanics to Macroscale Fibers by Nitesh Mittal, Farhan Ansari, Krishne Gowda V, Christophe Brouzet, Pan Chen, Per Tomas Larsson, Stephan V. Roth, Fredrik Lundell, Lars Wågberg, Nicholas A. Kotov, and L. Daniel Söderberg. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b01084 Publication Date (Web): May 9, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access and accompanied by this image illustrating the work,

Courtesy: American Chemical Society and the researchers [Note: The bottom two images of cellulose nanofibres, which are constittuents of an artificial cellulose fibre, appear to be from a scanning tunneling microsscope. Credit: Nitesh Mittal, KTH Stockholm

This news has excited interest at General Electric (GE) (its Wikipedia entry), which has highlighted the work in a May 25, 2018 posting (The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week) by Tomas Kellner on the GE Reports blog.

Terminology and spelling

I’ll start with spelling since that’s the easier of the two. In some parts of the world it’s spelled ‘fibres’ and in other parts of the world it’s spelled ‘fibers’. When I write the text in my post, it tends to reflect the spelling used in the news/press releases. In other words, I swing in whichever direction the wind is blowing.

For diehards only

As i understand the terminology situation, nanocellulose and cellulose nanomaterials are interchangeable generic terms. Further, cellulose nanofibres (CNF) seems to be another generic term and it encompasses both cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) and cellulose nanofibrils (CNF). Yes, there appear to be two CNFs. Making matters more interesting is the fact that cellulose nanocrystals were originally christened nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). For anyone who follows the science and technology scene, it becomes obvious that competing terminologies are the order of the day. Eventually the dust settles and naming conventions are resolved. More or less.

Ordinarily I would reference the Nanocellulose Wikipedia entry in my attempts to clarify the issues but it seems that the writers for the entry have not caught up to the current naming convention for cellulose nanocrystals, still referring to the material as nanocrystalline cellulose. This means, I can’t trust the rest of the entry, which has only one CNF (cellulose nanofibres).

I have paid more attention to the NCC/CNC situation and am not as familiar with the CNF situation. Using, NCC/CNC as an example of a terminology issue, I believe it was first developed in Canada and it was Canadian researchers who were pushing their NCC terminology while the international community pushed back with CNC.

In the end, NCC became a brand name, which was trademarked by CelluForce, a Canadian company in the CNC market. From the CelluForce Products page on Cellulose Nanocrystals,

CNC are not all made equal. The CNC produced by CelluForce is called CelluForce NCCTM and has specific properties and are especially easy to disperse. CelluForce NCCTM is the base material that CelluForce uses in all its products. This base material can be modified and tailored to suit the specific needs in various applications.

These, days CNC is almost universally used but NCC (not as a trademark) is a term still employed on occasion (and, oddly, the researchers are not necessarily Canadian).

Should anyone have better information about terminology issues, please feel free to comment.

Eye implants inspired by glasswing butterflies

Glasswinged butterfly. Greta oto. Credit: David Tiller/CC BY-SA 3.0

My jaw dropped on seeing this image and I still have trouble believing it’s real. (You can find more image of glasswinged butterflies here in an Cot. 25, 2014 posting on thearkinspace. com and there’s a video further down in the post.)

As for the research, an April 30, 2018 news item on phys.org announces work that could improve eye implants,

Inspired by tiny nanostructures on transparent butterfly wings, engineers at Caltech have developed a synthetic analogue for eye implants that makes them more effective and longer-lasting. A paper about the research was published in Nature Nanotechnology.

An April 30, 2018 California Institute of Technology (CalTech) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Robert Perkins, which originated the news item, goes into more detail,

Sections of the wings of a longtail glasswing butterfly are almost perfectly transparent. Three years ago, Caltech postdoctoral researcher Radwanul Hasan Siddique–at the time working on a dissertation involving a glasswing species at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany–discovered the reason why: the see-through sections of the wings are coated in tiny pillars, each about 100 nanometers in diameter and spaced about 150 nanometers apart. The size of these pillars–50 to 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair–gives them unusual optical properties. The pillars redirect the light that strikes the wings so that the rays pass through regardless of the original angle at which they hit the wings. As a result, there is almost no reflection of the light from the wing’s surface.

In effect, the pillars make the wings clearer than if they were made of just plain glass.

That redirection property, known as angle-independent antireflection, attracted the attention of Caltech’s Hyuck Choo. For the last few years Choo has been developing an eye implant that would improve the monitoring of intra-eye pressure in glaucoma patients. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide. Though the exact mechanism by which the disease damages eyesight is still under study, the leading theory suggests that sudden spikes in the pressure inside the eye damages the optic nerve. Medication can reduce the increased eye pressure and prevent damage, but ideally it must be taken at the first signs of a spike in eye pressure.

“Right now, eye pressure is typically measured just a couple times a year in a doctor’s office. Glaucoma patients need a way to measure their eye pressure easily and regularly,” says Choo, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science and a Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator.

Choo has developed an eye implant shaped like a tiny drum, the width of a few strands of hair. When inserted into an eye, its surface flexes with increasing eye pressure, narrowing the depth of the cavity inside the drum. That depth can be measured by a handheld reader, giving a direct measurement of how much pressure the implant is under.

One weakness of the implant, however, has been that in order to get an accurate measurement, the optical reader has to be held almost perfectly perpendicular–at an angle of 90 degrees (plus or minus 5 degrees)–with respect to the surface of the implant. At other angles, the reader gives an incorrect measurement.

And that’s where glasswing butterflies come into the picture. Choo reasoned that the angle-independent optical property of the butterflies’ nanopillars could be used to ensure that light would always pass perpendicularly through the implant, making the implant angle-insensitive and providing an accurate reading regardless of how the reader is held.

He enlisted Siddique to work in his lab, and the two, working along with Caltech graduate student Vinayak Narasimhan, figured out a way to stud the eye implant with pillars approximately the same size and shape of those on the butterfly’s wings but made from silicon nitride, an inert compound often used in medical implants. Experimenting with various configurations of the size and placement of the pillars, the researchers were ultimately able to reduce the error in the eye implants’ readings threefold.

“The nanostructures unlock the potential of this implant, making it practical for glaucoma patients to test their own eye pressure every day,” Choo says.

The new surface also lends the implants a long-lasting, nontoxic anti-biofouling property.

In the body, cells tend to latch on to the surface of medical implants and, over time, gum them up. One way to avoid this phenomenon, called biofouling, is to coat medical implants with a chemical that discourages the cells from attaching. The problem is that such coatings eventually wear off.

The nanopillars created by Choo’s team, however, work in a different way. Unlike the butterfly’s nanopillars, the lab-made nanopillars are extremely hydrophilic, meaning that they attract water. Because of this, the implant, once in the eye, is soon encased in a coating of water. Cells slide off instead of gaining a foothold.

“Cells attach to an implant by binding with proteins that are adhered to the implant’s surface. The water, however, prevents those proteins from establishing a strong connection on this surface,” says Narasimhan. Early testing suggests that the nanopillar-equipped implant reduces biofouling tenfold compared to previous designs, thanks to this anti-biofouling property.

Being able to avoid biofouling is useful for any implant regardless of its location in the body. The team plans to explore what other medical implants could benefit from their new nanostructures, which can be inexpensively mass produced.

As if the still image wasn’t enough,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Multifunctional biophotonic nanostructures inspired by the longtail glasswing butterfly for medical devices by Vinayak Narasimhan, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Jeong Oen Lee, Shailabh Kumar, Blaise Ndjamen, Juan Du, Natalie Hong, David Sretavan, & Hyuck Choo. Nature Nanotechnology (2018) doi:10.1038/s41565-018-0111-5 Published: 30 April 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

ETA May 25, 2018:  I’m obsessed. Here’s one more glasswing image,

Caption: The clear wings make this South-American butterfly hard to see in flight, a succesfull defense mechanism. Credit: Eddy Van 3000 from in Flanders fields – Belgiquistan – United Tribes ov Europe Date: 7 October 2007, 14:35 his file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. [downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:E3000_-_the_wings-become-windows_butterfly._(by-sa).jpg]

Hedy Lamarr documentary

It was the tech community which brought Hedy Lamarr’s scientific and technical accomplishments to light in the 1990s. The movie actress was better known for other aspects of her work and life.

She was the first actress to portray an orgasm on screen, the movie was Ecstasy (in English), the year was 1933; and, Hedy Lamarr was 18 years-old. Shortly after the film was released, Lamarr, of Jewish descent, married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian with ties to fascist regimes led by Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. A controlling and jealous man, she eventually escaped Mandl in the middle of the night with all the jewels she could pack on her person.

That’s just the prelude for a documentary celebrating the extraordinary Lamarr. ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ (directed and written by Alexandra Dean) has been making its way around the festival circuit for the last several months. I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2017 and the house was packed.

(If you missed it on the festival circuit, don’t worry. It’s being broadcast by most, if not all PBS stations, on May 18, 2018 as part of the American Masters series.)

*ETA video clips May 18, 2018 at 0945 hours PDT*

Over the last few decades there’s been a major reevaluation of Lamarr’s place in history. She was dangerous not just for her beauty (bombshell) but also in the way that people who aren’t easily categorized are always dangerous.

Before she did her ground-breaking work as an inventor and after her dramatic middle-of-the-night escape, Lamarr made her way to London* where she sought out Louis B. Mayer in 1937 and turned down his offer of a contract at MGM. Not enough money. Instead, she booked passage n a ship bound for New York City which was also carrying Louis B. Mayer and his wife. By the time they landed, Lamarr had gotten a contract that she was happy with and a brand-new name. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler effectively became Hedy Lamarr for the rest of her life.

Lamarr’s famous quote: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” provides an interesting juxtaposition with her role (along with avant-garde musician and composer George Antheil) in developing a technology that laid the basis for secure Wi-Fi, GPS (global positioning system), and Bluetooth. Or as some of us think of it, life in the 21st century.

She claimed to have advised Howard Hughes on the design for the of his airplanes; she was inspired by the wings on birds and fins on fish. She created a tablet that when reconstituted with water became a carbonated drink (according to Lamarr, it was not very tasty). There was also her influence in the field of plastic surgery. Those incisions that are in hard-to-see places? That was at Hedy Lamarr’s suggestion.

Her inventions spanned electrical engineering (telecommunications), bio-inspired engineering and physics (airplane wings), chemistry (the drink tablets), and plastic surgery. That’s an extraordinary range and there’s more. She created her own movie production company in 1945/46* (it was a failure) and was instrumental in designing a resort (she was never fairly recompensed for that).

She suffered throughout her life in various ways.The US government shafted her and George Antheil by politely refusing their invention in 1942. To be fair, it would have been difficult to use with the technology available at the time but somebody must have recognized its potential. At some point in the 1950s the US Navy developed the technology (without informing either inventor or compensating them as had been their deal).

There was more, her achievements were ignored or, worse, attributed to anyone except her the better part of her life; the Hollywood factory is not kind to older actresses, especially those of Lamarr’s generation; and she made serious mistakes.

Ironically, one of those mistakes involved plastic surgery. It’s hard to know what the effect will be on television but in the movie house, there was a big gasp when some footage from her last years was shown. She’s not monstrous but after an hour or more of footage from her ‘glamorous’ years, it’s a bit of a shock. If you can see past the effects of some ‘bad’ plastic surgery, you’ll find a woman who despite everything kept on. She never gave up and there’s a kind of beauty in that act which is indelible in a way that her physical beauty could never hope to be.

The documentary is fascinating not only for what it includes but for what it doesn’t. You’d think she’d never had a woman friend in her life but according to J. E. Smyth’s 2018 book ‘Nobody’s Girl Friday; The Women Who Ran Hollywood’, she and Bette Davis were good friends. There’s also mention of her poverty but none of her late life litigiousness and the $3M estate she left when she died in 2000.*** At a guess, having learned from the debacle with the US Navy (she could have sued but didn’t realize she had the right), she litigated her way into some financial health. As for the ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ movements which have formed since the Hollywood sex scandals of 2017 – ????, one can only imagine what Lamarr’s stories might have been.

If you have the time, see the documentary. Lamarr was a helluva dame.

*’Paris’ corrected to ‘London’ and ‘1945’ changed to 1945/46′ on on May 21, 2018 after watching the PBS broadcast of the documentary on May 18, 2018.

.***ETA May 21, 2018: See the Hedy Lamarr Wikipedia entry for more about her estate and other details of her life.***

Sea sponges don’t buckle under pressure

You wouldn’t think a sponge (the sea creature) was particularly tough but it is according to a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Judging by their name alone, orange puffball sea sponges might seem unlikely paragons of structural strength. But maintaining their shape at the bottom of the churning ocean is critical to the creatures’ survival, and new research shows that tiny structural rods in their bodies have evolved the optimal shape to avoid buckling under pressure.

The rods, called strongyloxea spicules, measure about 2 millimeters long and are thinner than a human hair. Hundreds of them are bundled together, forming stiff rib-like structures inside the orange puffball’s spongy body. It was the odd and remarkably consistent shape of each spicule that caught the eye of Brown University engineers Haneesh Kesari and Michael Monn. Each one is symmetrically tapered along its length — going gradually from fatter in the middle to thinner at the ends.

Caption: Tiny rods found inside the bodies of orange puffball sea sponges have an interesting tapered shape. That shape, new research shows, turns out to be a match for the Clausen profile, a column shape shown to be optimal for resistance to buckling failure. Credit: Michael Monn, Haneesh Kesari / Brown University

A Jan. 4, 2017 Brown University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Using structural mechanics models and a bit of digging in obscure mathematics journals, Monn and Kesari showed the peculiar shape of the spicules to be optimal for resistance to buckling, the primary mode of failure for slender structures. This natural shape could provide a blueprint for increasing the buckling resistance in all kinds of slender human-made structures, from building columns to bicycle spokes to arterial stents, the researchers say.

“This is one of the rare examples that we’re aware of where a natural structure is not just well-suited for a given function, but actually approaches a theoretical optimum,” said Kesari, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown. “There’s no engineering analog for this shape — we don’t see any columns or other slender structures that are tapered in this way. So in this case, nature has shown us something quite new that we think could be useful in engineering.”

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Function and form

Orange puffball sponges (Tethya aurantia) are native to the Mediterranean Sea. They live mainly in rocky coastal environments, where they’re subject to the constant stress of underwater waves and tidal forces. Sponges are filter feeders — they pump water through their bodies to extract nutrients and oxygen. To do this, their bodies need to be porous and compliant, but they also need enough stiffness to avoid being deformed too much.

“If you compress them too much, you’re essentially choking them,” Kesari said. “So maintaining their stiffness is critical to their survival.”

And that means the spicules, which make up the rib-like structures that give sponges their stiffness, are critical components. When Monn and Kesari saw the shapes of the spicules under a microscope, the consistency of the tapered shape from spicule to spicule was hard to miss.

“We saw the shape and wondered if there might be an engineering principle at work here,” Kesari said.

To figure that out, the researchers first needed to understand what forces were acting on each individual spicule. So Monn and Kesari developed a structural mechanics model of spicules bundled within a sponge’s ribs. The model showed that the mismatch in stiffness between the bulk of the sponge’s soft body and the more rigid spicules causes each spicule to experience primarily one type of mechanical loading — a compression load on each of its ends.

“You can imagine taking a toothpick and trying to squeeze it longways between your fingers,” Monn said. “That’s how these spicules see the world.”

The primary mode of failure for a structure with this mechanical load is through buckling. At a certain critical load, the structure starts to bend somewhere along its length. Once the bending starts, the force transferred by the load is amplified at the bending point, which causes the structure to break or collapse.

Once Kesari and Monn knew what forces were acting on the spicules and how they would fail, the next step was looking to see if there was anything special about them that helped them resist buckling. Scanning electron microscope images of the inside of a spicule and other tests showed that they were monolithic silica — essentially glass.

“We could see that there was no funny business going on with the material properties,” Monn said. “If there was anything contributing to its mechanical performance, it would have to be the shape.”

Optimal shape

Kesari and Monn combed the literature to see if they could find anything on tapering in slender structures. They came up empty in the modern engineering literature. But they found something interesting published more than 150 years ago by a German scientist named Thomas Clausen.

In 1851, Clausen proposed that columns that are tapered toward their ends should have more buckling resistance than plain cylinders, which had been and still are the primary design for architectural columns. In the 1960s, mathematician Joseph Keller published an ironclad mathematical proof that the Clausen column was indeed optimal for resistance to buckling — having 33 percent better resistance than a cylinder. Even compared to a very similar shape — an ellipse, which is slightly fatter in the middle and pointier at the ends — the Clausen column had 18 percent better buckling resistance.

Knowing what the optimal column shape is, Monn and Kesari started making precise dimensional measurements of dozens of spicules. They showed that their shapes were remarkably consistent and nearly identical to that of the Clausen column.

“The spicules were a match for the best shape of all possible column shapes,” Monn said.

It seems in this case, natural selection figured out something that engineers have not. Despite the fact that it’s been mathematically shown to be the optimal column shape, the Clausen profile isn’t widely known in the engineering community. Kesari and Monn hope this work might bring it out of the shadows.

“We see this as an addition to our library of structural designs,” Monn said. “We’re not just talking about an improvement of a few percent. This shape is 33 percent better than the cylinder, which is quite an improvement.”

In particular, the shape would be particularly useful in a new generation of materials made from nanoscale truss structures. “It would be easy to 3-D print the Clausen profile into these materials, and you’d get a tremendous increase in buckling resistance, which is often how these materials fail.”

Lessons from nature

The field of bio-inspired engineering began at a time when many people viewed adaptive evolution as an unceasing march toward perfection. If that were true, scientists should find untold numbers of optimal structures in nature.

But the modern understanding of evolution is a bit different. It’s now understood that in order for a trait to be conserved by natural selection, it doesn’t need to be optimal. It just needs to be good enough to work. That has put a bit of a damper on the enthusiasm for bio-inspired engineering, Kesari and Monn say.

However, they say, this work shows that nearly optimal structures are out there if researchers look in the right places. In this case, they looked at creatures from a very old phylum — sea sponges are among the very first animals on Earth — with plenty of time to evolve under consistent selection pressures.

Sponges are also fairly simple creatures, so understanding the function of a given trait is relatively straightforward. In this case, the spicule appears to have one and only one job to do — provide stiffness. Compare that to, for example, human bone, which not only provides support but must also accommodate arteries, provide attachment points for muscles and house bone marrow. Those other functions may cause tradeoffs in adaptations for strength or stiffness.

“With the sponges, you have lots of evolutionary pressure, lots of time and opportunity to respond to that pressure, and functional elements that can be easily identified,” Kesari said.

With those as guiding principles, there may well be more ideal structures out there waiting to be found.

“This work shows that nature can hit an optimum,” Kesari said, “and the biological world can still be hiding completely new designs of considerable technological significance in plain sight.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A new structure-property connection in the skeletal elements of the marine sponge Tethya aurantia that guards against buckling instability by Michael A. Monn & Haneesh Kesari. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 39547 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep39547 Published online: 04 January 2017

This paper is open access.

Kesari and Monn have researched sea sponges previously as can be seen in my April 7, 2015 posting, which highlights their work on strength and Venus’ flower basket sea sponge.