Tag Archives: Linköping University

Soft things for your brain

A March 5, 2018 news item on Nanowerk describes the latest stretchable electrode (Note: A link has been removed),

Klas Tybrandt, principal investigator at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University [Sweden], has developed new technology for long-term stable neural recording. It is based on a novel elastic material composite, which is biocompatible and retains high electrical conductivity even when stretched to double its original length.

The result has been achieved in collaboration with colleagues in Zürich and New York. The breakthrough, which is crucial for many applications in biomedical engineering, is described in an article published in the prestigious scientific journal Advanced Materials (“High-Density Stretchable Electrode Grids for Chronic Neural Recording”).

A March 5, 2018 Linköping University press release, which originated the news item, gives more detail but does not mention that the nanowires are composed of titanium dioxide (you can find additional details in the abstract for the paper; link and citation will be provided later in this posting)),

The coupling between electronic components and nerve cells is crucial not only to collect information about cell signalling, but also to diagnose and treat neurological disorders and diseases, such as epilepsy.

It is very challenging to achieve long-term stable connections that do not damage neurons or tissue, since the two systems, the soft and elastic tissue of the body and the hard and rigid electronic components, have completely different mechanical properties.

Stretchable soft electrodeThe soft electrode stretched to twice its length Photo credit: Thor Balkhed

“As human tissue is elastic and mobile, damage and inflammation arise at the interface with rigid electronic components. It not only causes damage to tissue; it also attenuates neural signals,” says Klas Tybrandt, leader of the Soft Electronics group at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Linköping University, Campus Norrköping.

New conductive material

Klas Tybrandt has developed a new conductive material that is as soft as human tissue and can be stretched to twice its length. The material consists of gold coated titanium dioxide nanowires, embedded into silicone rubber. The material is biocompatible – which means it can be in contact with the body without adverse effects – and its conductivity remains stable over time.

“The microfabrication of soft electrically conductive composites involves several challenges. We have developed a process to manufacture small electrodes that also preserves the biocompatibility of the materials. The process uses very little material, and this means that we can work with a relatively expensive material such as gold, without the cost becoming prohibitive,” says Klas Tybrandt.

The electrodes are 50 µm [microns or micrometres] in size and are located at a distance of 200 µm from each other. The fabrication procedure allows 32 electrodes to be placed onto a very small surface. The final probe, shown in the photograph, has a width of 3.2 mm and a thickness of 80 µm.

The soft microelectrodes have been developed at Linköping University and ETH Zürich, and researchers at New York University and Columbia University have subsequently implanted them in the brain of rats. The researchers were able to collect high-quality neural signals from the freely moving rats for 3 months. The experiments have been subject to ethical review, and have followed the strict regulations that govern animal experiments.

Important future applications

Klas Tybrandt, researcher at Laboratory for Organic ElectronicsKlas Tybrandt, researcher at Laboratory for Organic Electronics Photo credit: Thor Balkhed

“When the neurons in the brain transmit signals, a voltage is formed that the electrodes detect and transmit onwards through a tiny amplifier. We can also see which electrodes the signals came from, which means that we can estimate the location in the brain where the signals originated. This type of spatiotemporal information is important for future applications. We hope to be able to see, for example, where the signal that causes an epileptic seizure starts, a prerequisite for treating it. Another area of application is brain-machine interfaces, by which future technology and prostheses can be controlled with the aid of neural signals. There are also many interesting applications involving the peripheral nervous system in the body and the way it regulates various organs,” says Klas Tybrandt.

The breakthrough is the foundation of the research area Soft Electronics, currently being established at Linköping University, with Klas Tybrandt as principal investigator.
liu.se/soft-electronics

A video has been made available (Note: For those who find any notion of animal testing disturbing; don’t watch the video even though it is an animation and does not feature live animals),

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

High-Density Stretchable Electrode Grids for Chronic Neural Recording by Klas Tybrandt, Dion Khodagholy, Bernd Dielacher, Flurin Stauffer, Aline F. Renz, György Buzsáki, and János Vörös. Advanced Materials 2018. DOI: 10.1002/adma.201706520
 First published 28 February 2018

This paper is open access.

Organic nanoelectronics in water

Researchers in Sweden have developed organic electronics that are stable in water according to a January 11, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Linköping University [Sweden], have developed the world’s first complementary electrochemical logic circuits that can function stably for long periods in water. This is a highly significant breakthrough in the development of bioelectronics.

A January 11, 2018 Linköping University press release, which originated the news item, notes this latest advance is based on work that started in 2002,

Complementary logic circuitComplementary logic circuit Photo credit: Thor Balkhed

The first printable organic electrochemical transistors were presented by researchers at LiU as early as 2002, and research since then has progressed rapidly. Several organic electronic components, such as light-emitting diodes and electrochromic displays, are already commercially available.

The dominating material used until now has been PEDOT:PSS, which is a p-type material, in which the charge carriers are holes. In order to construct effective electron components, a complementary material, n-type, is required, in which the charge carriers are electrons.
It has been difficult to find a sufficiently stable polymer material, one that can operate in water media and in which the long polymer chains can sustain high current when the material is doped.

N-type material

In an article in the prestigious scientific journal Advanced Materials, Simone Fabiano, head of research in the Organic Nanoelectronics group at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, presents, together with his colleagues, results from an n-type conducting material in which the ladder-type structure of the polymer backbone favours ambient stability and high current when doped. One example is BBL, poly(benzimidazobenzophenanthroline), a material often used in solar cell research.

Postdoctoral researcher Hengda Sun has found a method to create thick films of the material. The thicker the film, the greater the conductivity.

“We have used spray-coating to produce films up to 200 nm thick. These can reach extremely high conductivities,” says Simone Fabiano.

The method can also be successfully used together with printed electronics across large surfaces.

Hengda Sun has also shown that the circuits function for long periods, both in the presence of oxygen and water.

Moist surroundings

“This may appear at first glance to be a small advance in a specialised field, but what is great about it is that it has major consequences for many applications. We can now construct complementary logic circuits – inverters, sensors and other components – that function in moist surroundings,” says Simone Fabiano.

“Resistors are needed in logical circuits that are based solely on p-type electrochemical transistors. These are rather bulky, and this limits the applications that can be achieved. With an n-type material in our toolbox, we can produce complementary circuits that occupy the available space much more efficiently, since resistors are no longer required in the logical circuits,” says Magnus Berggren, professor of organic electronics and head of the Laboratory for Organic Electronics.

Applications of the organic components include logic circuits that can be printed on textile or paper, various types of cheap sensor, non-rigid and flexible displays, and – not least – the huge field of bioelectronics. Polymers that conduct both ions and electrons are the bridge needed between the ion-conducting systems in the body and the electronic components of, for example, sensors.

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

Complementary Logic Circuits Based on High-Performance n-Type Organic Electrochemical Transistors by Hengda Sun, Mikhail Vagin, Suhao Wang, Xavier Crispin, Robert Forchheimer, Magnus Berggren, and Simone Fabiano. Advanced Materials Vol. 30 Issue 3 Version of Record online: 10 JAN 2018 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201704916

© 2018 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Bioelectronics: creating components that speak the body’s own language

This is work is still in its early stages but the idea that the body could be stimulated to release more of its own pain relievers is exciting. From a Nov. 2, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

With a microfabricated ion pump built from organic electronic components, ions can be sent to nerve or muscle cells at the speed of the nervous system and with a precision of a single cell. “Now we can start to develop components that speak the body’s own language,” says Daniel Simon, head of bioelectronics research at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Linköping University, Campus Norrköping.

A Nov. 2, 2016 Linköping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, discusses the research in more detail,

Our nerve and muscle cells send signals to each other using ions and molecules. Certain substances, such as the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), are important signal substances throughout the central nervous system. Eighteen months ago, researchers at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics demonstrated an ion pump which researchers at the Karolinska Institutet could use to reduce the sensation of pain in awake, freely-moving rats. The ion pump delivered GABA directly to the rat´s spinal cord. The news that researchers could deliver the body’s own neurotransmitters was published in Science Advances and garnered intense interest all over the world.

The research group at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics has now achieved another major advance and developed a significantly smaller and more rapid ion pump that transmits signals nearly as rapidly as the cells themselves, and with a precision on the scale of an individual cell. …

“Our skilled doctoral students, Amanda Jonsson and Theresia Arbring Sjöström, have succeeded with the last important part of the puzzle in the development of the ion pump. When a signal passes between two synapses it takes 1-10 milliseconds, and we are now very close to the nervous system’s own speed,” says Magnus Berggren, professor of organic electronics and director of the Laboratory of Organic Electronics.

“We conclude that we have produced artificial nerves that can communicate seamlessly with the nervous system. After more than 10 years’ research we have finally got all the parts of the puzzle in place,” he says.

Amanda Jonsson, who together with Theresia Arbring Sjöström is principal author of the article in Science Advances, has developed the pain-alleviating ion pump as part of her doctoral studies. She proudly presents a glass disk with many of the new miniaturized ion pumps. Some pumps have only a single outlet, but others have six tiny point outlets.

“We can make them with several outlets, it’s just as easy as making one. And all of the outlets can be individually controlled. Previously we could only transport ions horizontally and from all outputs at the same time. Now, however, we can deliver the ions vertically, which makes the distance they have to be transported as short as a micrometre,” she explains.

All of the outputs of the ion pump can also be rapidly switched on or off with the aid of micrometre-sized ion diodes.

“The ions are released rapidly by an electrical signal, in the same way that the neurotransmitter is released in a synapse,” says Theresia Arbring Sjöström.

Organic electronic components have a major advantage here: they can conduct both ions and electricity. In this case, the material PEDOT:PSS enables the electrical signals to be converted to chemical signals that the body understands.

The ion diode has recently been developed, as has the material that forms the basis of the new rapid ion pump.

“The new material makes it possible to build with a precision and reliability not possible in previous versions of the ion pump,” says Daniel Simon.

The new ion pump has so far only been tested in the laboratory. The next step will be to test it with live cells and the researchers hope eventually to, for example alleviate pain, stop epileptic seizures, and reduce the symptoms of Parkinsons disease, using exactly the required dose at exactly the affected cells. Communication using the cell´s own language, and the cell´s own speed.

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

Chemical delivery array with millisecond neurotransmitter release by Amanda Jonsson, Theresia Arbring Sjöström, Klas Tybrandt, Magnus Berggren, and Daniel T. Simon. Science Advances  02 Nov 2016: Vol. 2, no. 11, e1601340 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601340

This paper is open access.

Paper as good at storing electrical energy as commercial supercapacitors

This is another potential nanocellulose application according to a Dec. 3, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at Linköping University’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Sweden, have developed power paper — a new material with an outstanding ability to store energy. The material consists of nanocellulose and a conductive polymer. …

One sheet, 15 centimetres in diameter and a few tenths of a millimetre thick can store as much as 1 F, which is similar to the supercapacitors currently on the market. The material can be recharged hundreds of times and each charge only takes a few seconds.

A Dec. 3, 2015 Linköping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

It’s a dream product in a world where the increased use of renewable energy requires new methods for energy storage — from summer to winter, from a windy day to a calm one, from a sunny day to one with heavy cloud cover.

“Thin films that function as capacitors have existed for some time. What we have done is to produce the material in three dimensions. We can produce thick sheets,” says Xavier Crispin, professor of organic electronics and co-author to the article just published in Advanced Science.

Other co-authors are researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Innventia, Technical University of Denmark and the University of Kentucky.

The material, power paper, looks and feels like a slightly plasticky paper and the researchers have amused themselves by using one piece to make an origami swan — which gives an indication of its strength.

The structural foundation of the material is nanocellulose, which is cellulose fibres which, using high-pressure water, are broken down into fibres as thin as 20 nm in diameter. With the cellulose fibres in a solution of water, an electrically charged polymer (PEDOT:PSS), also in a water solution, is added. The polymer then forms a thin coating around the fibres.

“The covered fibres are in tangles, where the liquid in the spaces between them functions as an electrolyte,” explains Jesper Edberg, doctoral student, who conducted the experiments together with Abdellah Malti, who recently completed his doctorate.

The new cellulose-polymer material has set a new world record in simultaneous conductivity for ions and electrons, which explains its exceptional capacity for energy storage. It also opens the door to continued development toward even higher capacity. Unlike the batteries and capacitors currently on the market, power paper is produced from simple materials – renewable cellulose and an easily available polymer. It is light in weight, it requires no dangerous chemicals or heavy metals and it is waterproof.

This press release also offers insight into funding and how scientists view requests for reports and oversight,

The Power Papers project has been financed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation since 2012.

“They leave us to our research, without demanding lengthy reports, and they trust us. We have a lot of pressure on us to deliver, but it’s ok if it takes time, and we’re grateful for that,” says Professor Magnus Berggren, director of the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University.

Naturally, commercialization efforts are already in the works. (Canadian nanocellulose community watch out! The Swedes are coming!),

The new power paper is just like regular pulp, which has to be dehydrated when making paper. The challenge is to develop an industrial-scale process for this.

“Together with KTH, Acreo and Innventia we just received SEK 34 million from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research to continue our efforts to develop a rational production method, a paper machine for power paper,” says Professor Berggren.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the team’s study,

An Organic Mixed Ion–Electron Conductor for Power Electronics by Abdellah Malti, Jesper Edberg, Hjalmar Granberg, Zia Ullah Khan, Jens W. Andreasen, Xianjie Liu, Dan Zhao, Hao Zhang, Yulong Yao, Joseph W. Brill, Isak Engquist, Mats Fahlman, Lars Wågberg, Xavier Crispin, and Magnus Berggren. Advanced Science DOI: 10.1002/advs.201500305 Article first published online: 2 DEC 2015

© 2015 The Authors. Published by WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is open access.

Electronic organic micropump for direct drug delivery to the brain

I can understand the appeal but have some questions about this micropump in the brain concept. First, here’s more about the research from an April 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Many potentially efficient drugs have been created to treat neurological disorders, but they cannot be used in practice. Typically, for a condition such as epilepsy, it is essential to act at exactly the right time and place in the brain. For this reason, the team of researchers led by Christophe Bernard at Inserm Unit 1106, “Institute of Systems Neuroscience” (INS), with the help of scientists at the École des Mines de Saint-Étienne and Linköping University (Sweden) have developed an organic electronic micropump which, when combined with an anticonvulsant drug, enables localised inhibition of epileptic seizure in brain tissue in vitro.

An April 16, 2015 INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, goes on to describe the problem the researchers are attempting to solve and their solution to it,

Drugs constitute the most widely used approach for treating brain disorders. However, many promising drugs failed during clinical testing for several reasons:

  • they are diluted in potentially toxic solutions,
  • they may themselves be toxic when they reach organs to which they were not initially directed,
  • the blood-brain barrier, which separates the brain from the blood circulation, prevents most drugs from reaching their targets in the brain,
  • drugs that succeed in penetrating the brain will act in a non-specific manner, i.e. on healthy regions of the brain, altering their functions.

Epilepsy is a typical example of a condition for which many drugs could not be commercialised because of their harmful effects, when they might have been effective for treating patients resistant to conventional treatments [1].

During an epileptic seizure, the nerve cells in a specific area of the brain are suddenly activated in an excessive manner. How can this phenomenon be controlled without affecting healthy brain regions? To answer this question, Christophe Bernard’s team, in collaboration with a team led by George Malliaras at the Georges Charpak-Provence Campus of the École des Mines of Saint-Étienne and Swedish scientists led by Magnus Berggren from Linköping University, have developed a biocompatible micropump that makes it possible to deliver therapeutic substances directly to the relevant areas of the brain.

The micropump (20 times thinner than a hair) is composed of a membrane known as “cation exchange,” i.e., it has negative ions attached to its surface. It thus attracts small positively charged molecules, whether these are ions or drugs. When an electrical current is applied to it, the flow of electrons generated projects the molecules of interest toward the target area.

To enable validation of this new technique, the researchers reproduced the hyperexcitability of epileptic neurons in mouse brains in vitro. They then injected GABA, a compound naturally produced in the brain and that inhibits neurons, into this hyperactive region using the micropump. The scientists then observed that the compound not only stopped this abnormal activity in the target region, but, most importantly, did not interfere with the functioning of the neighbouring regions.

This technology may thus resolve all the above-mentioned problems, by allowing very localised action, directly in the brain and without peripheral toxicity.

“By combining electrodes, such as those used to treat Parkinson’s disease, with this micropump, it may be possible to use this technology to treat patients with epilepsy who are resistant to conventional treatments, and those for whom the side-effects are too great,” explains Christophe Bernard, Inserm Research Director.

Based on these initial results, the researchers are now working to move on to an in vivo animal model and the possibility of combining this high-technology system with the microchip they previously developed in 2013. The device could be embedded and autonomous. The chip would be used to detect the imminent occurrence of a seizure, in order to activate the pump to inject the drug at just the right moment. It may therefore be possible to control brain activity where and when it is needed.

In addition to epilepsy, this state-of-the-art technology, combined with existing drugs, offers new opportunities for many brain diseases that remain difficult to treat at this time.

###

[1] Epilepsy in brief

This disease, which affects nearly 50 million people in the world, is the most common neurological disorder after migraine.

The neuronal dysfunctions associated with epilepsy lead to attacks with variable symptoms, from loss of consciousness to disorders of movement, sensation or mood.

Despite advances in medicine, 30% of those affected are resistant to all treatments.

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

Controlling Epileptiform Activity with Organic Electronic Ion Pumps by Adam Williamson, Jonathan Rivnay, Loïg Kergoat, Amanda Jonsson, Sahika Inal, Ilke Uguz, Marc Ferro, Anton Ivanov, Theresia Arbring-Sjöström, Daniel T. Simon, Magnus Berggren, George G. Malliaras, and Christophe Bernardi. Advanced Materials First published: 11 April 2015Full publication history DOI: 10.1002/adma.201500482

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, my questions. How does the pump get refilled once the drugs are used up? Do you get a warning when the drug supply is almost nil? How does that warning work? Does implanting the pump require brain surgery or is there a less intrusive fashion of placing this pump exactly where you want it to be? Once it’s been implanted, how do you find a pump  20 times thinner than a human hair?

For some reason this micropump brought back memories of working in high tech environments where developers would come up with all kinds of nifty ideas but put absolutely no thought into how these ideas might actually work once human human beings got their hands on the product. In any event, the micropump seems exciting and I hope researchers work out the kinks, implementationwise, before they’re implanted.

Batteries made of wood and the mechanical properties of plants

According to Ariel Schwartz in an Aug. 14, 2012 (?) article for Fast Company’s Co.Exist website, batteries made from wood waste may be in our future (Note: I have removed a link),

Researchers from Poznan University of Technology in Poland and Linköping University in Sweden have figured out how to combine lignin with polypyrrole (a conductive polymer) to create a battery cathode that could one day be used in energy storage. The lignin acts as an insulator, while the polypyrrole holds an electric charge.

The discovery is a potential boon for the renewable energy world. As the researchers explain in the journal Science, “Widespread application of electrical power storage may require more abundant materials than those available in inorganics (which often require rare metals), and at a lower cost. Materials for charge storage are desired from easily accessible and renewable sources. Combining cellulose materials and conjugated polymers for charge storage has … attracted attention.”

For anyone (like me) who’s heard the word lignin but doesn’t know the precise meaning, here’s a definition from a Wikipedia essay (Note: I have removed links and footnotes),

Lignin or lignen is a complex chemical compound most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae. The term was introduced in 1819 by de Candolle and is derived from the Latin word lignum, meaning wood. It is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, exceeded only by cellulose, employing 30% of non-fossil organic carbon, and constituting from a quarter to a third of the dry mass of wood.

This next item also mentions lignin but in reference to mechanical properties that engineers are observing in plant cells.  From the Aug. 14, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

From an engineer’s perspective, plants such as palm trees, bamboo, maples and even potatoes are examples of precise engineering on a microscopic scale. Like wooden beams reinforcing a house, cell walls make up the structural supports of all plants. Depending on how the cell walls are arranged, and what they are made of, a plant can be as flimsy as a reed, or as sturdy as an oak.

An MIT researcher has compiled data on the microstructures of a number of different plants, from apples and potatoes to willow and spruce trees, and has found that plants exhibit an enormous range of mechanical properties, depending on the arrangement of a cell wall’s four main building blocks: cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and pectin.

The news item was originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Jennifer Chu’s Aug. 14, 2012 news release,

Lorna Gibson, the [researcher] at MIT, says understanding plants’ microscopic organization may help engineers design new, bio-inspired materials.

“If you look at engineering materials, we have lots of different types, thousands of materials that have more or less the same range of properties as plants,” Gibson says. “But here the plants are, doing it arranging just four basic constituents. So maybe there’s something you can learn about the design of engineered materials.”

A paper detailing Gibson’s findings has been published this month [freely accessible] in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

To Gibson, a cell wall’s components bear a close resemblance to certain manmade materials. For example, cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin can be as stiff and strong as manufactured polymers. A plant’s cellular arrangement can also have engineering parallels: cells in woods, for instance, are aligned, similar to engineering honeycombs, while polyhedral cell configurations, such as those found in apples, resemble some industrial foams.

To explore plants’ natural mechanics, Gibson focused on three main plant materials: woods, such as cedar and oak; parenchyma cells, which are found in fruits and root vegetables; and arborescent palm stems, such as coconut trees. She compiled data from her own and other groups’ experiments and analyzed two main mechanical properties in each plant: stiffness and strength.

Among all plants, Gibson observed wide variety in both properties. Fruits and vegetables such as apples and potatoes were the least stiff, while the densest palms were 100,000 times stiffer. Likewise, apples and potatoes fell on the lower end of the strength scale, while palms were 1,000 times stronger.

“There are plants with properties over that whole range,” Gibson says. “So it’s not like potatoes are down here, and wood is over there, and there’s nothing in between. There are plants with properties spanning that whole huge range. And it’s interesting how the plants do that.”

Since I’m always interested in trees, from Chu’s news release,

In trees such as maples and oaks, cells grow and multiply in the cambium layer, just below the bark, increasing the diameter of the trees. The cell walls in wood are composed of a primary layer with cellulose fibers randomly spread throughout it. Three secondary layers lie underneath, each with varying compositions of lignin and cellulose that wind helically through each layer.

Taken together, the cell walls occupy a large portion of a cell, providing structural support. The cells in woods are organized in a honeycomb pattern — a geometric arrangement that gives wood its stiffness and strength.

Parenchyma cells, found in fruits and root vegetables, are much less stiff and strong than wood. The cell walls of apples, potatoes and carrots are much thinner than in wood cells, and made up of only one layer. Cellulose fibers run randomly throughout this layer, reinforcing a matrix of hemicellulose and pectin. Parenchyma cells have no lignin; combined with their thin walls and the random arrangement of their cellulose fibers, Gibson says, this may explain their cell walls’ low stiffness. The cells in each plant are densely packed together, similar to industrial foams used in mattresses and packaging.

Unlike woody trees that grow in diameter over time, the stems of arborescent palms such as coconut trees maintain similar diameters throughout their lifetimes. Instead, as the stem grows taller, palms support this extra weight by increasing the thickness of their cell walls. A cell wall’s thickness depends on where it is along a given palm stem: Cell walls are thicker at the base and periphery of stems, where bending stresses are greatest.

There’s even a nanotechnology slant to this story, from Chu’s news release,

Gibson sees plant mechanics as a valuable resource for engineers designing new materials. For instance, she says, researchers have developed a wide array of materials, from soft elastomers to stiff, strong alloys. Carbon nanotubes have been used to reinforce composite materials, and engineers have made honeycomb-patterned materials with cells as small as a few millimeters wide. But researchers have been unable to fabricate cellular composite materials with the level of control that plants have perfected.

“Plants are multifunctional,” Gibson says. “They have to satisfy a number of requirements: mechanical ones, but also growth, surface area for sunlight and transport of fluids. The microstructures plants have developed satisfy all these requirements. With the development of nanotechnology, I think there is potential to develop multifunctional engineering materials inspired by plant microstructures.”

Given the problems with the forestry sector, these developments (wooden batteries and engineering materials inspired by plant cell walls) should excite some interest.