- THE MAGAZINE
Nanyang Technological University researchers study a mighty little creature for a scientific breakthrough.
A scientist from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore may be onto an ocean of discovery thanks to his research into a little sea creature called the mantis shrimp. The research is likely to lead to making ceramics—today’s preferred material for medical implants and military body armor—many times stronger. These findings were published in a recent issue of Science, and focused on the mantis shrimp’s ability to shatter aquarium glass and crab shells alike.
The common creature, native to the Indo Pacific, has club-like “arms” that can strike prey at speeds matching that of a 5.56 mm rifle bullet. Each impact generates a force exceeding 50 kg, which is hundreds of times the mantis shrimp’s weight.
Assistant professor Ali Miserez at NTU’s School of Materials Science Engineering (MSE) and School of Biological Sciences (SBS) collaborated with James Weaver, Ph.D., from Harvard University as well as scientists from the University of California-Riverside, Purdue University, and Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S. They have observed down to the nanoscale the unique composite structure of the mantis shrimp’s club and discovered that it is weaved together in a unique fashion to create a structure that is tougher than many engineered ceramics. This is the first time that the mantis shrimp’s club has been studied in such detail.
“The highly damage-resistant property of the mantis shrimp could be most useful in medical products such as hip and joint implants, as they sustain impacts hundreds of times daily during walking and daily activities,” says Miserez, a recipient of the National Research Foundation Fellowship, which provides a research grant of up to S$3 million (approximately $2.3 million) over five years.
“Damaged hip implants are a real problem and cost billions of dollars to the healthcare systems worldwide,” he says. “They also cause painful surgeries to patients when they need to be replaced. Using a nature-inspired blueprint to design biocompatible implants is actually a ‘shrimple’ solution.”
Present implants can also cause bone loss during the wear-and-tear process. Likewise, fine particles from metal implants have been known to cause toxicity and immune reactions from the patient’s body, causing pain and even disability in some cases. Designing a damage-resistant implant that is made out of a bio-compatible bone material would solve these problems, as the material exists naturally in the human body. Miserez, whose laboratory is situated at MSE’s Centre for Biomimetic Sensor Science, said they will continue their research to better understand the design and materials, and will attempt to replicate it in the laboratory next year.
His team, which includes doctoral student Shahrouz Amini, will be focusing on developing a new bio-compatible material that could be used for medical implants such as hip implants. However, the potential applications for these nature-inspired designs are widespread because the final product is expected to be lighter in weight and more impact resistant than existing products. Additional applications could include new types of armor plating, lighter vehicles, and tougher engine and aircraft components like pistons and gears, all of which suffer from impact, wear and abrasion damage over time.
Currently, the 36-year-old Swiss professor is working with post-graduate students and plans to have NTU undergraduates participate in this groundbreaking research as well. Miserez, who also teaches undergraduate students, aims to have two undergraduates each year in the NTU team as they continue their research to better understand the design and materials with the aim of replicating it in the laboratory next year. He plans to recruit eight undergraduates per year into his research team, which specializes in bio-mimicking—a highly interdisciplinary field.
“I want to inspire young people to take up science research by giving them a chance to participate in cutting-edge research and using state-of-the-art equipment, just like how I was inspired by my professors when I was a student,” says Miserez. “I hope more students will be attracted to stay in Singapore for their degrees because we have shown that at NTU, we are doing innovative research on par with the rest of the world. The mantis shrimp is a compelling example of our work, and we currently have many more exciting projects related to bio-inspired engineering in the lab.”
About Nanyang Technological University
A research-intensive public university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has 33,500 undergraduate and postgraduate students in the colleges of Engineering, Business, Science, and Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. In 2013, NTU will enroll the first batch of students at its new medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, which is set up jointly with Imperial College London.
NTU is also home to four world-class autonomous institutes—the National Institute of Education, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Earth Observatory of Singapore, and Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering—as well as various leading research centers such as the Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI), Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N) and Institute on Asian Consumer Insight (ACI).