By Helen Thompson
From velcro to bullet trains, nature has inspired some of the most impressive feats of human innovation. This summer a crab-like, underwater robot, developed by Korean scientists, will search for ancient artifacts in the Yellow Sea. Drones are mimicking the flight movements of birds and bees. And, our biomimetic future looks bright.
A handful of researchers are now hot on the heels of a new creation: synthetic skin.
Marine animals use their skin to help navigate and survive their environment. Dolphins living in cold waters actually have thick skin to insulate their bodies and stay warm. Octopuses’ sucker-lined skin not only contains millions of nerves that help them sense and grasp prey, but it’s also embedded with unique color-changing cells that can render them invisible to predators. The skin bumps that line humpback whales’ pectoral fins increase the animal’s buoyancy. So, scientists see potential.
Using 3D printing and computer modeling technology, researchers are developing artificial-but-realistic marine animal skin for use in everything from anti-microbial door handles to underwater robots. George Lauder, an ichthyologist at Harvard University in Boston, and his team have developed the first true artificial shark skin with help from a top-end 3D printer.
Previous attempts involved rubber molds and fabric, and researchers struggled to manufacture material with both soft and hard components. Shark skin-inspired swimsuits made a splash at the 2008 Olympics, but Lauder’s research team actually found that the material in suits like Speedo’s Fastskin II doesn’t truly mimic shark skin or reduce drag, because it lacks denticles.