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Why does a ceramic coffee cup break much more easily than a seashell? That might seem like a question to ponder during a long, lazy afternoon at the beach. But General Electric, a company known in recent years for aiming its bottom line research at specific business issues, is looking for the answer and using a rather unusual strategy: it is reverse-engineering seashells. Researchers in the company’s 25-person nanotechnology group want to understand what nature has done right, as well as how nature’s approach might someday be used to build better ceramic materials for jet engines and power turbines.

Unlike typical GE research projects, the seashell effort has no specific product goals-and no time line. Indeed, say company insiders, this is exactly the type of project that just two years ago the company would have rejected as being far too speculative. But the 110-year-old corporation that gave the world better light bulbs is renewing its push to find disruptive technologies. And that has led to its work on seashells, along with many other similarly high-risk research projects that-if they ever pay off-could take up to 10 years to yield results. “This is a very new time line and level of risk for GE,” says Margaret Blohm, who heads the nanotech group.

But even though the seashell research falls into the high-risk category, it is solidly grounded in the growing discipline of nanoscience. Seashells, it turns out, have some surprising qualities, and they have been attracting the attention of researchers for more than a decade. “They’re extraordinarily tough,” says Case Western Reserve University materials science professor Arthur Heuer, who attributes their crack- and shatter-resistant properties to “an exquisite microarchitecture.” Understanding the details of this nanostructure, he adds, could lead to insights into how to make ceramics that are similarly tough and shatter resistant.

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