UCR research on mantis shrimp claws provides insight on producing stronger and lighter material

On Tuesday, Jan. 16, Professor David Kisailus, the Winston Chung Endowed Professor in Energy Innovation in UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering, published a research report explaining the “ultrastructural design” of mantis shrimp claws. The goal of this research was to understand how their claws are assembled in the hopes of constructing lighter and, appropriately, “ultra-strong” materials with a vast range of practical applications.

Mantis shrimp are crustaceans known to use their club-shaped claws to strike hard-shelled prey with an acceleration faster than a .22 caliber bullet. Kisailus and his team wanted to find out how the shrimp could attack at that speed without any harmful repercussions.

Kisailus first posted his team’s findings in 2012, where he and his team dissected the self-regenerating clubs of 15 mantis shrimp. They discovered that the impact region of those clubs was structured with an extremely crystalized form of calcium phosphate, the material that makes up human teeth and bones, in a zig-zag “herringbone structure” that gives the club both extra protection and strength.

Kisailus’ collaborator Pablo Zavattieri, professor of civil engineering and university faculty scholar at Purdue University, showcased the practical applications of this knowledge by producing a 3D-printed helmet with the same herringbone pattern in its structure. Tests on the helmet yield that damage is virtually non-existent when applied to the protective gear.

“The more we learn about this tiny creature, the more we realize how much it can help us as we design better planes, cars, sports equipment and armor,” Kisailus said in an interview with 3DPrint.

The applicative implications of this research are far-reaching: Alongside helmets, there is now the prospect of fortifying vehicles both on the ground and in the air, from cars to planes to even spaceships. Body armor is also on the table for improvement; “Preliminary tests show the materials are bulletproof,” Kisailus said to Science Magazine.

The research report from last Tuesday identifies another protective structure in the clubs: A collection of aligned fibers that works “much like the hand wrap used by boxers when they fight,” Kisailus told UCR Today. The striated fibers help keep the club compacted and prevent expansion that could lead to cracking.

Tuesday’s report also discusses the hydrodynamic design of the teardrop-shaped claws. This feature decreases drag as the club travels at high speeds, to the point where the claw rips the surrounding water, creating a bubble in its wake that quickly implodes and doubles up the damage to the mantis shrimp’s prey.

Kisailus remarks that we can already see this design in cycling helmets and golf clubs, and comments that nature still has much to offer. “The natural world can provide many more design cues that will enable us to develop high performance synthetic materials,” Kisailus told UCR Today.

At UCR, Professor Kisailus is in charge of the Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab. Biomimicry relates to the fabrication of materials based on living organisms, and nanostructure relates to creating products at or near the microscopic level.

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