I was surprised to discover a nice little MIT article this morning about abalone shell and virus-made films that may be used for batteries, although a bit dissappointing. One of the opening sentences, “Thanks to those sea snails [abalone] and a eureka moment, Angela Belcher, Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, is developing smart nano-materials”, left me sure that the article would be about turning shell into battery. How amazing!
In reality, it’s about using viruses to make what we want them to make. True, this is still kinda amazing, but a little old-hat. It’s like manufacturing vs. handcrafted goods. I’m more fascinated with someone who comes up with an original way to glaze pottery, perhaps using some new plastics, than someone who builds a better porcelain machine. I want to see recombinations of old and new materials and techniques working together in a truly unique way. But that’s just me.
Despite my disappointment, the article still had several high points for me. First, a water-repellent battery film is pretty cool, even if it’s made using viruses, not shell. Second, I was pleased by Angela Belcher’s continued study of the abalone for new inspiration, as well as her humane treatment of even these low-form animals. Third, the whole thing inspired me to actually go find out how abalone produces its shell, and how that shell is both extremely rough on the outside and delicate and colorful on the inside. It turns out both the outer edge of the shell and the inside part, which are entirely different substances, is secreted by the mantle, which kinda surrounds the protruding foot of the animal. Also, the actual substance of the shell itself is so hard and impact-resistant because it’s made up of a series of chalky ‘brick’ units held together by an elastic protein acting as a mortar. When something hits the shell, the bricks caroom to the side, sliding and yet still held by the protein. Since the protein has a very high tensile strength and can be pulled out like a large spring, this allows the shell to stay intact both under a sudden force, or under sustained pressure (the rigid chalky parts acting strongly to resist compression).
The whole thing reminded me of the Super Mario movie (Which should have had a sequel, by the way. I’m still waiting patiently). The abalone protein is like the super-springy fungus, protecting the brothers at every turn. So while I doubt the advantages of rocket boots, I wonder what this combining of material types synthetically will now spawn. Heated winter boots that are solar cells on the outside to provide the heat? Sneakers that are alive enough to custom-model to your feet? ‘Duck boots’ with natural water-repellent oils?