Washington, May 1 : Marine snails, sea urchins, and other aquatic animals are serving as research models for scientists at UC Riverside's Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, who believe that these coral reef organisms hold secrets for designing synthesize engineering materials.
The group of scientists led by David Kisailus have build a unique 500-gallon seawater system that dominates the Biomimetic and Nanostructured Materials Laboratory, offering homes for both coldwater (60 degrees Fahrenheit) and tropical (80 degrees Fahrenheit) species.
These include California's red abalone, purple and brown sea urchins, giant keyhole limpets, several coral species, along with numerous colonies of club-tipped corallimorpharians.
"My hope is that we can truly learn from these organisms how to design, optimize, and synthesize engineering materials that display properties that we as engineers can only dream of," said Kisailus.
Professor Kisailus along with fellow graduate and research associate James Weaver are now conducting various studies to uncover the hidden abilities of these sea animals in developing engineering materials.
"James brings me knowledge of all these critters. And I say, let's look at how the abalone grows its shell. Maybe we can use a similar strategy to modify a nanostructure in a solar cell to make them more efficient," said Kisailus.
Sea urchins produce flexible ceramics ... and some marine sponges form fracture-resistant glass rods and fibres.
"We look at these mineralizing skeletal systems and adapt the lessons learned from their study for the synthesis of real-life engineering," he added.
Red abalone is California's largest marine snails and has a large oval shell. The shell contains mother-of-pearl, or nacre, a tough material that absorbs energy which the scientists hope can help in developing lightweight armour, strong enough to protect American soldiers in Iraq from devastating IED attacks.
Also when the red abalone grows, it constructs its shell in the same way a new building goes up with girders first. These girders are composed of organic material. Then it fills in the areas between the girders with the mineral component, resulting in the formation of a very tough layered nano-composite.
The team is now trying to mimic the precision, using beakers and simple chemistry to make materials with controlled size and shape.
If they succeed, it may provide more efficient energy storage and conversion and offering solutions to the global energy crisis.
"Imagine having a solar cell that can be inexpensive, flexible, and highly efficient. I believe many of the organisms we study hold the keys to solving these problems," said Kisailus.