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Army takes lessons from squid to develop a self-healing film

An Army-funded project developed a synthetic protein inspired by the suction cups of squid, that self-heals in seconds. Researchers at Penn State University and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany published the research in an article in the journal Nature Materials on July 27, 2020.

PENN STATE UNIVERSITY

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 29, 2020

Army-funded researchers have developed a synthetic protein, inspired by the suction cups on squid, that can repair damage caused by scratches, holes and cuts within seconds, the service said.

The self-healing synthetic skin could one day feature in Army robots, prosthetic legs, personal protective equipment like hazmat suits, ventilators, and other items where damage from wear and tear could mean life or death, an Army statement said.

“With a self-healing bio-based synthetic material, any sites of damage that emerge can be repaired, extending the lifetime of the system or device,” said Stephanie McElhinny, biochemistry program manager at the Army Research Office, which helped fund the research.

Researchers at Penn State University and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, developed the self-healing synthetic protein after analyzing the genetic material of serrated grabbers on squid suction cups, which heal themselves if damaged, they said in a study published in the journal Nature Materials on Monday.

When they tested the protein’s self-healing properties by slicing a piece of it in half, putting the two halves together and heating them, the two pieces merged, the researchers wrote in the study.

The protein also filled in and healed damaged areas that the researchers scratched with a laser or poked to make tiny holes.

The synthetic material could have numerous military applications, including fixing scratches on the protective coating of gear like hazmat suits, or repairing small holes in pressurized containers to prevent fluid or air leaks, the researchers said.

Scientists used the material to make an artificial muscle they say can lift weights 3,000 times heavier than its own mass, and a machine to pick up cherry tomatoes to demonstrate it can handle delicate items.

“This research demonstrates the potential of engineering synthetic proteins to deliver novel materials for future Army applications, such as personal protective equipment or flexible robots that could maneuver in confined spaces,” McElhinny said.

Similar materials developed previously have had healing times of up to 24 hours, said Abdon Pena-Francesch, a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow in the physical intelligence department at the Max Planck Institute. The new, squid-inspired synthetic protein allowed scientists to reduce that to one second, he said.

“Our protein-based soft robots can now repair themselves immediately,” said Pena-Francesch, the paper’s lead author.

“In nature, self-healing takes a long time,” he said. “In this sense, our technology outsmarts nature.”

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

An Army-funded project developed a synthetic protein inspired by the suction cups of squid, that self-heals in seconds. Researchers at Penn State University and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany published the research in an article in the journal Nature Materials on July 27, 2020.
PENN STATE UNIVERSITY