Ceramics are lightweight and hard, but you can’t make jet engines out of them because they’d shatter like dinner plates. So, materials scientists have been trying to mimic natural materials that combine strength (a measure of resistance to deformation) with toughness (a measure of resistance to fracture). In particular, they’ve looked to the porous but resilient material called nacre that lines abalone shells. Now researchers have developed a method for manufacturing nacre-like materials in the lab. These new materials have mechanical properties similar to metal alloys and are the toughest ceramics ever made. The new method could lead the way to ceramic structural materials for energy-efficient buildings and lightweight but resilient automobile frames.
Nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, combines plates of stong but brittle calcium carbonate with a soft protein glue in a brick-and-mortar structure that’s 3,000 times tougher than either constituent. Ordinarily, when scientists make composites in the lab, the resulting materials’ properties average out those of their constituents. “When nature makes composites, the properties are better,” says Robert Ritchie, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-led the ceramics research. That’s because nature’s composites have complex structures that are difficult to mimic. “People have tried, but can’t get that fineness of structure,” says Ritchie.
For years, scientists have been trying to design new materials based on tough natural materials like nacre and bone. The Berkeley ceramic “really shows that drawing our inspiration from nature in order to synthesize better materials can be very successful,” says Julia Greer, a materials scientist at CalTech.
To shape their ceramics into nacre-like structures, the Berkeley researchers first create a water suspension of the material to be patterned–in this case, aluminum oxide. Then they chill it in a very controlled way. “You take the heat out at one end,” explains Ritchie. This leads to long, thin structures that the researchers press into microscale, brick-like structures after heating them to evaporate the water. When this process is repeated, it creates a layered, porous structure of aluminum oxide bricks connected to one another by column-like structures–the same shapes found in natural nacre. Then, to mimic the protein glue in the abalone shell, the researchers fill the spaces with a polymer. This process is described online in the journal Science this week. Other groups have made thin films of biomimetic materials; the Berkeley group has succeeded in making large pieces.