The mother-of-pearl growth surface of abalone shell is colored due to the way light refracts as it strikes tiny terraces of calcium carbonate.
Engineering researchers at the University of California, San Diego are using the shell of a seaweed-eating snail as a guide in the development of a new generation of bullet-stopping armor. The colorful oval shell of the red abalone is highly prized as a source of nacre, or mother-of-pearl, jewelry, but the UCSD researchers are most impressed by the shell’s ability to absorb heavy blows without breaking.
In a paper published in the Jan. 15 issue of Materials Science and Engineering A, Marc A. Meyers, a professor in UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, and engineering graduate student Albert Lin explain in detail for the first time the steps taken by the abalone to produce a helmet-like home made with 95 percent calcium carbonate “tiles” and 5 percent protein adhesive. Teachers who write on blackboards know that calcium carbonate, or chalk, is weak and brittle, but Meyers and Lin have demonstrated that a highly ordered brick-like tiled structure created by the mollusk is the toughest arrangement of tiles theoretically possible.
The abalone shell investigation is one of a growing number of science-mimicking-nature, or biomimetic, projects at UCSD. For example, Meyers also is analyzing the strong, but extremely lightweight bill of the Toco Toucan, a Central and South American bird that squashes fruit and berries with its banana-shaped bill. “We are actually interested in basic research on new materials,” said Meyers. “We have turned to nature because millions of years of evolution and natural selection have given rise in many animals to some very sturdy materials with surprising mechanical properties.”
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