Materials inspired by Mother Nature: A 1-pound boat that could float 1,000 pounds

Mar 25, 2012

Combining the secrets that enable water striders to walk on water and give wood its lightness and great strength has yielded an amazing new material so buoyant that, in everyday terms, a boat made from 1 pound of the substance could carry five kitchen refrigerators, about 1,000 pounds.

One of the lightest solid substances in the world, which is also sustainable, it was among the topics of a symposium here today at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. The symposium focused on an emerging field called biomimetics, in which scientists literally take inspiration from Mother Nature, probing and adapting biological systems in plants and animals for use in medicine, industry and other fields.

Olli Ikkala, Ph.D., described the new buoyant material, engineered to mimic the water strider's long, thin feet and made from an "aerogel" composed of the tiny nano-fibrils from the cellulose in plants. Aerogels are so light that some of them are denoted as "solid smoke." The nanocellulose aerogels also have remarkable mechanical properties and are flexible.

"These materials have really spectacular properties that could be used in practical ways," said Ikkala. He is with Helsinki University of Technology in Espoo, Finland. Potential applications range from cleaning up oil spills to helping create such products as sensors for detecting environmental pollution, miniaturized military robots, and even children's toys and super-buoyant beach floats.

Ikkala's presentation was among almost two dozen reports in the symposium titled, "Cellulose-Based Biomimetic and Biomedical Materials," that focused on the use of specially processed cellulose in the design and engineering of materials modeled after biological systems. Cellulose consists of long chains of the sugar glucose linked together into a polymer, a natural plastic–like material. Cellulose gives wood its remarkable strength and is the main component of plant stems, leaves and roots. Traditionally, cellulose's main commercial uses have been in producing paper and textiles –– cotton being a pure form of cellulose. But development of a highly processed form of cellulose, termed nanocellulose, has expanded those applications and sparked intense scientific research. Nanocellulose consists of the fibrils of nanoscale diameters so small that 50,000 would fit across the width of the period at the end of this sentence.

"We are in the middle of a Golden Age, in which a clearer understanding of the forms and functions of cellulose architectures in biological systems is promoting the evolution of advanced materials," said Harry Brumer, Ph.D., of Michael Smith Laboratories, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He was a co-organizer of the with J. Vincent Edwards, Ph.D., a research chemist with the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Orleans, Louisiana. "This session on cellulose-based biomimetic and biomedical materials is really very timely due to the sustained and growing interest in the use of cellulose, particularly nanoscale cellulose, in biomaterials."

Ikkala pointed out that cellulose is the most abundant polymer on Earth, a renewable and sustainable raw material that could be used in many new ways. In addition, nanocellulose promises advanced structural materials similar to metals, such as high-tech spun fibers and films.

"It can be of great potential value in helping the world shift to materials that do not require petroleum for manufacture," Ikkala explained. "The use of wood-based cellulose does not influence the food supply or prices, like corn or other crops. We are really delighted to see how is moving beyond traditional applications, such as paper and textiles, and finding new high-tech applications."

One application was in Ikkala's so-called "nanocellulose carriers" that have such great buoyance. In developing the new material, Ikkala's team turned nanocellulose into an aerogel. Aerogels can be made from a variety of materials, even the silica in beach sand, and some are only a few times denser than air itself. By one estimate, if Michelangelo's famous statue David were made out of an aerogel rather than marble, it would be less than 5 pounds.

The team incorporated into the nanocellulose aerogel features that enable the water strider to walk on water. The material is not only highly buoyant, but is capable of absorbing huge amounts of oil, opening the way for potential use in cleaning up oil spills. The material would float on the surface, absorbing the oil without sinking. Clean-up workers, then, could retrieve it and recover the oil.

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User comments : 21

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210
2.9 / 5 (7) Mar 25, 2012
THIS is a tremendous invention whose uses will reach the marketplace and save BILLIONS in petrochemical manufacturing.
But, imagine, what if we could manipulate this wonderful substance such that we could switch this buoyancy feature On and OFF.
Lately, the pace of change and progress in science has become downright dizzying...the ways we fund advanced research and novel experimentation may have to change such that we can:
1) STudy Environmental impact as we develop these new substances, techniques, and ideas.
2) Get novel uses of advanced pharmaceuticals to the poor, needy, and dying all over the world.
3) Fund industries that we KNOW would benefit small nations, developing nations, and very advanced technologies WITHOUT letting DARPA have to do it.

DARPA's of the world have a purpose, sadly...but, I can see DARPA-type institutions advancing on the defense, yeah, okay, I said that, and human/humanity/medicinal/help-mankind front as well and smoothing the technical way forward.
word
210
1.4 / 5 (7) Mar 25, 2012
I mean look at CHina; Communist/Socialist to varying degrees of a mixture of the two, okay. BUT, they still love money and make stuff (and, copy....stuff..you know I ain't lyin') Now if we could help these more EXPENSIVE and exotic solutions get to a pre-manufacturing stage and then announce them to a ready manufacturing base and release the specs for enviro-impact, apparent best manufacturing practices, etc, etc, etc, then even cottage industries could start-up right next to Mitsubishi getting the tech for mass production. Everyone would get a shot and the playing field is not just level but everyone gets to start at the same time/point.
THE DOWN-SIDE: We would have to pool a significant amount o human resources and impose standards to keep sweat shops from 'FoxConning' it's people to death (you cannot automate everything, but with this approach, you automate alot) In other words, people would have to care about each other....damnit...solv D Mpossible git D Ncredile..
word-
ormondotvos
Mar 25, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Newbeak
4.5 / 5 (8) Mar 25, 2012
It would be cool to have a 1 pound canoe.Only problem is,you would need something to stiffen it up,such as 50 pounds of fiberglass.
Deadbolt
5 / 5 (2) Mar 25, 2012
Finally! My dream of abandoning society to sail the ocean blue in an unsinkable boat! It is upon me!
rwinners
4.7 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2012
Ok, how much does this cost to manufacture, like per pound?
bredmond
5 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2012
Another thing that can clean up oil spills is preemptive accountability.
Sanescience
3 / 5 (2) Mar 26, 2012
Wait until they can manufacture lighter than air graphene packing spheres containing a vacuum. You could use them to make your shipped packages lighter. But boy howdy you better not loose them into the open air because they would never come down, just slowly accumulate in the upper atmosphere as a kind of "pollution".
El_Nose
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2012
Sorry to burst people's "bubbles" but this stuf while very bouyant cannot actually be made into a boat.

It is kinda like bubles actually -- its a foam -- its described as solid smoke -- it has no rigidity, not support structure -- this can and will never be a boat -- its a great headline expoenential bouyancy, is great if it could actually hold something.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2012
It would be cool to have a 1 pound canoe.Only problem is,you would need something to stiffen it up,such as 50 pounds of fiberglass.

That's really the point. While it's nice thatthis has a lot of buoyancy per pouind of weight we already use something in our ships that has an even better buoyancy: air

Aerogels have a lot of uses (they make spectacular insulators for example), but floating a boat isn't one of them.

As the article says: They can absorb a lot of gunk before they sink - so cleanup after an oilspill is definitely an option.
SteveMerrick
5 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2012
Would it make a good duvet?
alfie_null
not rated yet Mar 26, 2012
Sorry to burst people's "bubbles" but this stuf while very bouyant cannot actually be made into a boat.

So you attach it to a frame. An odd thought: how about a frame that completely surrounds the payload. You would be in a boat that would, I'd guess, be open to air, but completely waterproof - no rain, for instance.
vidyunmaya
3 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2012
Congratulations to the Team spirit.It is a good approach. I am sure you will come up with more practical applications as well.
210
1 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2012
Hummm, I wonder what the R value would be for such a buoyant, celled, substance? This could be the 'Space-Shuttle-tiles' of the insulation industry. What do you think?

word-to-ya-muthas
Sonhouse
not rated yet Mar 26, 2012
I know silica aerogels have an insulating value, don't know the actual R # but a couple of cM of the stuff is as insulating as 1 meter of fiberglass. Funny, it's the same stuff but different form.

Anyone know the R# of 1 meter of fiberglass?
Sonhouse
5 / 5 (1) Mar 26, 2012
Found it:
http://en.wikiped...ulation)

Something even better than aerogel: Vacuum insulating panels.
Aerogel's come in at R10 to R30 per inch, but Vacuum panels beat that at R45 per inch.
The question is would cellulose aerogel be in the R10 area or R30? One surprise to me, anyway: snow is a better insulator than hardwood. Snow=R1.4, hardwood about R1.
Bales of hay has been used as insulator when you can tolerate thick walls, but it clocks in around R1/inch.
Newbeak
not rated yet Mar 26, 2012
It would be cool to have a 1 pound canoe.Only problem is,you would need something to stiffen it up,such as 50 pounds of fiberglass.

That's really the point. While it's nice thatthis has a lot of buoyancy per pouind of weight we already use something in our ships that has an even better buoyancy: air

Aerogels have a lot of uses (they make spectacular insulators for example), but floating a boat isn't one of them.

As the article says: They can absorb a lot of gunk before they sink - so cleanup after an oilspill is definitely an option.

You are quite correct,especially about the air! What I would like to see is aerogel insulated gloves,as I haven't found any that keep my hands warm when working outside in winter.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Mar 27, 2012
What I would like to see is aerogel insulated gloves

I seem to remember reading somewhere that they tried this (for a suit for arctic explorers or a space suit or something of that sort). Turned out the insulation was TOO good. The people in there wouldn't lose any body heat and would start overheating. Aerogels also don't transport humidity, so it would be like being stuck inside a latex body glove.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2012
I seem to remember reading somewhere that they tried this... Turned out the insulation was TOO good. The people in there wouldn't lose any body heat and would start overheating. Aerogels also don't transport humidity, so it would be like being stuck inside a latex body glove.

How hard is it to engineer a network of tiny air pipes woven inside the suit, pants, arms, legs, and gloves, powered by a bellow-type pump activated by the expansion and collapse of the wearer's chest while breathing to exchange air from the inside and the outside? You can add similar pumps on the legs and arms for when active. You don't need that much air volume to decrease humidity inside the suit. Adding a removable pad of moisture absorbent to the air circuit somewhere convenient outside the suit, and you are all set. Actually, this idea was "invented" years ago by Frank Herbert with the Still Suit (i believed it was called, also it collects water moisture for the wearer to drink) in the Dunes Series.
Kimberly_Peacock
not rated yet Apr 01, 2012
Sorry to burst people's "bubbles" but this stuf while very bouyant cannot actually be made into a boat.

It is kinda like bubles actually -- its a foam -- its described as solid smoke -- it has no rigidity, not support structure -- this can and will never be a boat -- its a great headline expoenential bouyancy, is great if it could actually hold something.


There are many different types of aerogels and they all have different properties. Clay based Aerogels are much less fragile and have good strength, while having 90% of the insulating qualities of Silica Aerogel. The Cellulose binder may provide the strength and elasticity. If not you could coat the arogel and just provide a polymer that coats the outside which has the strength and or elasticity desired.
Kimberly_Peacock
not rated yet Apr 01, 2012
What I would like to see is aerogel insulated gloves

I seem to remember reading somewhere that they tried this (for a suit for arctic explorers or a space suit or something of that sort). Turned out the insulation was TOO good. The people in there wouldn't lose any body heat and would start overheating. Aerogels also don't transport humidity, so it would be like being stuck inside a latex body glove.


There are a couple of ways to solve that problem. 1. Integrate a solid to liquid phase change material in an insulated capsule, with a variable conductance loop heat pipe. Use a rechargeable zeolite package to absorb moisture. The zeolites will provide additional heating when they absorb the moisture.

When too hot heat will be transferred to PCM and from PCM to outside world.
Kimberly_Peacock
not rated yet Apr 01, 2012
Sorry to burst people's "bubbles" but this stuf while very bouyant cannot actually be made into a boat.

So you attach it to a frame. An odd thought: how about a frame that completely surrounds the payload. You would be in a boat that would, I'd guess, be open to air, but completely waterproof - no rain, for instance.


That is not necessarily true. Aerogels have many different properties depending on the materials used. They can also interact with other materials in unique ways. Think printed circuit board heat ex changers which are diffusion bonded. > porosity, > surface are for heat exchange, > greater strength

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