From chewing rocks to Formula 1 car chassis

A scanning electron microscope image of limpet teeth. Credit: University of Portsmouth

Limpet teeth have extreme strength. Credit: University of Portsmouth

I can't tell how many times I saw limpets on rocks (if you don't what they are look at the second photo, showing the mono-valve sea-shell on a rock), and yet I never dreamt they were unique in the whole animal world.

According to University of Portsmouth, UK, they happen to have teeth that are the strongest natural substance known in the animal world (so far). This record was hold by the spider web (4.5 GPa tensile strength), an amazing structure that were it possibile to scale it to the dimension of a 30cm diameter rope would be able to stop a jumbo jet. The extreme strength of a spider web results from the mixture of several proteins and a resulting "cord" that is both extensible, strong and able to dissipate energy (the one carried by a flying fly...).

In the case of limpet's teeth (let me be transparent with you, I didn't know limpets had teeth before reading the paper) the tensile strength can reach 6.5GPa, well above the spider web (that anyhow has elasticity and heat dissipation characteristics that remain unique....) au pair with the strongest material we ever produced (carbon fibres). This is the result of a specific way the atoms are organised to form tiny ribbons that one over the other provide this amazing strength. To measure this strength scientist have used an atomic force microscope to split the ribbons to the atom level.

Well, so far it is just "nice to know". But the reason I decided to post this news is because the team of scientists are now trying to re-create these structures in an industrial way so that they can be used for the chassis of a car, like a Formula 1 car, were strength and lightness are both important. And the amazing thing is that in these last ten years we have learnt to build atomic structures from the bottom up, something that was not possible in the past. Say thanks to nanotechnology!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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