Aeroplanes to structurally mimic human teeth
When you think about it, your teeth withstand a lot. From tearing through that sirloin you enjoyed last weekend, to chattering through the bracing English wintertime, they endure plenty without chipping, cracking or cartoonishly crumbling away. In fact they’re so strong that scientists believe aeroplane manufacturers could learn a thing or two from our pearly whites.
No, I’m not talking about a Boeing 747 built of molars. But thanks to the wonders of evolution, human tooth enamel has developed a surprisingly resilient structure. “Living organisms have evolved so as to produce biocomposite materials that often outperform manufactured materials,” wrote Nicholas Kotov of Michigan University and postdoctoral researcher Bongjun Yeom, who published a study on tooth enamel’s potentially far-reaching applications. The scientists succeeded in creating artificial tooth enamel, or rather a nanocomposite whose mechanical properties replicated those of tooth enamel, the most obvious of these being strength, or “hardness”.
Human tooth enamel derives its strength from a bipartite structure: hard ceramic columns are encased in a soft protein matrix, which protects the tooth from damage upon impact by absorbing vibrations. This symbiotic setup has stood the test of time, with Kotov and Yeom commenting that: “This structural motif is unusually consistent across all species from all geological eras”. Yep, that means we do indeed share the same tooth enamel structure as the dinosaurs. It’s a longevity that testifies to the structure’s eminently “functional basis”.
This super-strength, tooth-like artificial material could one day be used to create stronger aeroplane fuselages; it’s lighter than the material currently used, and the team say it’s more adept at enduring the flux of vibrations and pressure that aeroplane flights encounter. What’s more, Gizmodo points out, the material could be useful for electronics circuits within rockets, which need to withstand literally astronomical G-forces, thus requiring of its materials utmost resilience.
Alas, methods of production need to be honed (read: hastened) if the artificial tooth enamel is to serve any commercial purpose. At present, creating a single micrometre of the material means individually building up 40 layers one at a time. An arduous, not to mention unsustainable, process for making one thousandth of a millimetre of the product. But technology is nascent and it’s likely to become much more viable as experiments continue.
If you’re keen to learn more, you can get your teeth (I went there) into the study here. In the meantime, it seems science, for all of its innovation, will continue to use nature as its greatest springboard. We still reckon these woodpeckers have a strong case against the NFL for copyright infringement; pilfering their biological assets for reproduction in football helmets, the leeches.