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Biomimicry Structure of natural mother-of pearl (top) and the synthetic mother-of-pearl (bottom), at the same scale. The stacked brick structure is clearly visible in both cases. In the bottom image the tortuous path taken by the crack can be seen clearly.
Image Credit: Sylvain Deville, Florian Bouville, LSFC

Published on March 28th, 2014 | by James Ayre

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New Super-Strong Ceramic Material Inspired By Mother-Of-Pearl Created

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March 28th, 2014 by
 
A new super-strong ceramic material — inspired by the mother-of-pearl created by the single-shelled marine mollusks known as abalones — has been created by a team of researchers led by the Laboratoire de Synthèse et Fonctionnalisation des Céramiques.

This new “artificial mother-of-pearl” is considerably less prone to fracture than conventional ceramics, as well as being nearly 10 times stronger. The material retains its properties even when exposed to rather high temperatures — up to at least 600°C.

Structure of natural mother-of pearl (top) and the synthetic mother-of-pearl (bottom), at the same scale. The stacked brick structure is clearly visible in both cases. In the bottom image the tortuous path taken by the crack can be seen clearly. Image Credit: Sylvain Deville, Florian Bouville, LSFC

Structure of natural mother-of pearl (top) and the synthetic mother-of-pearl (bottom), at the same scale. The stacked brick structure is clearly visible in both cases. In the bottom image the tortuous path taken by the crack can be seen clearly.
Image Credit: Sylvain Deville, Florian Bouville, LSFC

These qualities are largely down to the use of a new, innovative manufacturing process, that utilizes a freezing step. Importantly, this new approach is highly compatible with large-scale industrialization, and isn’t appreciably more expensive than the techniques currently in widespread use.

The researchers think that the material could help to reduce the weight/size of ceramic elements in motors and/or energy generation technologies — thereby helping to reduce costs. Armor plating featuring the material is another option.


The press release from Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) provides more:

Mother-of-pearl, which covers the shells of abalone and some bivalves, is 95% composed of calcium carbonate (aragonite), an intrinsically fragile material that is nonetheless very tough. Mother-of-pearl can be seen as a stack of small bricks, welded together with mortar composed of proteins. Its toughness is due to its complex, hierarchical structure where cracks must follow a tortuous path to propagate. It is this structure that inspired the researchers.

As a base ingredient, the team from the Laboratoire de Synthèse et Fonctionnalisation des Céramiques (CNRS/Saint-Gobain) used a common ceramic powder, alumina, in the form of microscopic platelets. To obtain the layered mother-of-pearl structure, they suspended this powder in water. The colloidal suspension (1) was then cooled to obtain controlled ice crystal growth, causing alumina to self-assemble in the form of stacks of platelets. The final material was subsequently obtained from a high temperature densification step.

This artificial mother-of-pearl is ten times tougher than a conventional alumina ceramic. This is because a crack has to move round the alumina “bricks” one by one to propagate. This zigzag pathway prevents it from crossing the material easily.

Of course, there are a great number of materials other than alumina that can be used, so the process can be tailored to any number of different purposes. So long as you’ve got a ceramic powder, in the form of platelets, that can self-assemble in a similar way, then you can use this process.

The new findings are detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature Materials.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • JamesWimberley

    Abalones – know as ormers – are found off the coasts of Brittany and the Channel Islands; they are rare, difficult to harvest, and protected. Quite why they need a super-tough mother-of-pearl lining to their shells is a mystery.

    • Ronald Brakels

      Well, they need tough protection because they’re all hemophiliacs. Why are they all hemophiliacs? Good question.

      • Doug Cutler

        If the tough shell was the initial adaptation perhaps it becomes less of a evolutionary liability that they happen to also be hemophiliac – thus the hemophiliac gene survives. It may be true even if the hemophilia appears afterwards by random mutation. As time goes by the advantage goes to ever tougher shells leaving the genes of the inner organism to wander about so to speak. That’s my best guess but ask actual evolutionary biologist for a real answer.

  • BlackTalon53 .

    I wonder if there is any way to use this for new Li batteries? AFAIK it is one of the greatest problems of Silicone-anode batteries that the anode tends to crack after a few charge-discharge cycles.

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