Plants plugging the gap

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Image: Richard Wheeler, Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Richard Wheeler, Wikimedia Commons.

Engineers – and artists – have often sought inspiration from the natural world. Take for example the story of the discovery of Velcro by a Swiss gentleman when he observed how plant burrs were tightly stuck to his clothing and the hairs of his dog. This utilitarian view of nature even has its own term, biomimetics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biomimetics). As another example of how inspirational plants can be, researchers have exploited the healing process of lianas (woody climbing plants) to develop a ‘bionic coating’ that can quickly and efficiently repair pneumatic structures such as tyres (http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=77771&CultureCode=en). The interdisciplinary team includes biologists from the Botanical Gardens of the University of Freiburg (Germany), chemists from the Freiburg Materials Research Center, and physicists and engineers from the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Testing EMPA in Dübendorf. The botanically-inspired self-repairing foams can drastically reduce the amount of air escaping from damaged membranes and have been teamed up with the equally inspirational Tensairity® technology, which is a ‘foundational structure using inflated airbeams and attached stiffeners or cables that gains mechanical advantages for low mass’  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tensairity). ‘Even air mattresses or inflatable rafts could profit from the lightweight constructions one day’ said Dr Olga Speck of the University of Freiburg. So, as you relax on the Med. atop your li-lo you can dream up even more intriguing human applications for Mother Nature’s ingenuity. Although, as the discoverers of a pressure-sensitive tape freely admit, sometimes discoveries are just accidental (http://www.physorg.com/news197656087.html). The team at Oregon State University have come up with a new adhesive whilst trying to develop something else. Extolling the virtues of this serendipitous sticky stuff, Anlong Li, one of the product’s originators, says ‘This adhesive is incredibly simple to make, doesn’t use any organic solvents or toxic chemicals, and is based on vegetable oils that would be completely renewable, not petrochemicals. It should be about half the cost of existing technologies and appears to work just as well’. Potential uses for the adhesive include duct tape, packaging tape, stick-on notes, labels and even postage stamps.


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