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Emulating nature for better engineering

28 July 2011 Inderscience

UK researchers describe a novel approach to making porous materials, solid foams, more like their counterparts in the natural world, including bone and wood in the new issue of the International Journal of Design Engineering.

According to Carmen Torres-Sanchez of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and Jonathan Corney of the Department of Design, Manufacture and Engineering Management, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow in the natural world, the graduated distribution of porosity has evolved so that nature might transfer forces and minimise stresses to avoid whole structure failure. For instance, a crack in the branch of a tree will not lead to the felling of the tree in the same way that a broken ankle will not lead to collapse of the whole leg. "Porosity gradation is an important functionality of the original structure that evolution has developed in a trial and error fashion," the team explains.

It is not just tree trunks and bones that have evolved graduated porosity, beehives, marine sponges, seashells, teeth, feathers and countless other examples display this characteristic. Researchers would like to be able to emulate the way in which nature has evolved solutions to the perennial issues facing engineers. In so doing, they will be able to develop structures that use the least amount of material to gain the lowest density structure and so the maximum strength-to-weight ratio.

"Many engineering applications, such as thermal, acoustics, mechanical, structural and tissue engineering, require porosity tailored structures," the team says. If materials scientists could develop porous materials that closely mimic nature's structural marvels, then countless engineering problems including bridge building and construction in earthquake zones, improved vehicle and aircraft efficiency and even longer-lasting more biocompatible medical prosthetics might be possible.

Unfortunately, current manufacturing methods for making porous materials cannot mass-produce graduated foams. The collaborators in Scotland, however, have turned to low power-low frequency ultrasonic irradiation that can "excite" molten polymers as they begin to foam and once solidify effectively trap within their porous structure different porosity distributions throughout the solid matrix. This approach allowed the team to generate polymeric foams with porosity gradients closely resembling natural cellular structures, such as bones and wood. The technology opens up new opportunities in the design and manufacture of bio-mimetic materials that can solve challenging technological problems, the team adds.

The researchers anticipate that using more sophisticated ultrasound energy sources as well as chemical coupling agents in the molten starting material will allow them to fine tune the formation of pores in the material. This is an area of current interest because it would facilitate the design of novel texture distributions or replicate more closely nature porous materials, the team concludes.

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