Nature’s arms race inspire new materials


Scientists all over the world are pushing really hard to innovate new eco-friendly techniques of significant efficiency in material development. One smart way is to explore Nature’s ingenious ways of resolving problems. Biological systems have evolved unique combinations of mechanical properties to fulfil their specific function through a series of ingenious designs. The weapons developed during Nature’s evolutionary arms race are an outstanding example. Unfortunately, the principles underlying many of Nature’s solutions largely remain to be explored and integrated with the attributes of current artificial strategies, such as the large selection of synthetic components and cost-effective fabrication routes. Therefore, seeking lessons from Nature by replicating the underlying principles of such biological materials offers new promise for creating unique combinations of properties in man-made systems. In particular, Nature’s prolific and well refined means of attack and defence.

Recently, researchers in the field biomechanics and bioinspired materials: associate professor Zengqian Liu and Professor Zhefeng Zhang at the Institute of Metal Research Chinese Academy of Sciences and in collaboration with Professor Robert O. Ritchie from the University of California Berkeley conduct a thorough and expert review of the critical structural and mechanical designs employed by naturally evolved weapons in pursuing their high mechanical efficiency during Nature’s evolutionary arms race. The team of material scientist experts considered selected materials as examples in the framework of a classification of such weapons into ten different groups. Specifically, they aspired to revisit various offensive mechanisms (such as teeth/tusks, sting, spikes etc.) and defensive mechanisms in various animals. Their report is currently published in the research journal, Advanced Materials.

The report entailed analysing and extracting the common materials-design strategies towards an outstanding synergy of offence and persistence of the weapons. Next, a representative state-of-the-art progress in man-made systems, where such strategies have been effectively replicated, was then presented. The researchers then revisited the main challenges and potential opportunities associated with natural weapons in biological and bioinspired materials research.

In the course of their review, the authors found out that Nature could offer inspiration to be engendered for the design and development of new materials and functionalities. They also noted that three critical stages were inevitable for the success of biomimetics and bio-inspiration oriented endeavours, the three included: characterizing (biological systems), understanding (the underlying mechanisms and principles), and learning (from Nature by replicating biological strategies in man-made systems).

In summary, the study presents a detailed revisit of Nature’s ingenious yet effective evolutionary adaptations refined over millions of years. In general, the exploration of biological materials embodies almost an unlimited task in view of Nature’s endless biodiversity. Nonetheless, fresh lessons can also be generated by re-examining already known systems, particularly with regard to the notion of convergent evolution in Nature. Aside from increasing our understanding of the basic science of Nature, the insights into biological material systems, as represented by the current topic of Nature’s arms race, will undoubtedly provide further inspiration towards achieving enhanced material properties and functionality in man-made systems. Altogether, taking lessons from biological systems presents an enlightening strategy for the design of new materials with potentially unprecedented combinations of properties and/or functionality.

Nature's arms race inspire new materials - Advanced Engineering

About the author

Zengqian Liu is an associate professor in the Institute of Metal Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMR, CAS). He received Ph.D. degree from Beihang University in 2013. From 2013 to 2015, he worked with Prof. Zhefeng Zhang in IMR, CAS as a T.S. Ke postdoctoral research fellow. He joined the IMR, CAS in 2015. From 2015 to 2017, he worked with Prof. Robert O. Ritchie at University of California, Berkeley as a postdoctoral research associate. He works in the field of biological and bioinspired structures and materials with a special focus on their mechanical properties.

About the author

Zhefeng Zhang is a professor in the Institute of Metal Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMR, CAS). He received Ph.D. degree from IMR, CAS in 1998 and joined the IMR as a research associate. From 2000 to 2001, he worked at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan as a JSPS fellow. From 2001 to 2003, he worked with Profs. L. Schultz and J. Eckert at the Institute for Metallic Materials, IFW-Dresden, Germany as an Alexander von Humboldt research fellow. He assumed his present position in 2004. His research focuses on the mechanical properties, specifically associated with the fatigue and fracture behavior, of materials.

About the author

Robert O. Ritchie is the Chua Distinguished Professor of Engineering in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of California Berkeley, and Faculty Senior Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He holds M.A., Ph.D., and Sc.D. degrees in physics/materials science from Cambridge.

He is known for his research on the fracture of materials, with current interests focused on bioinspired materials, the degradation of bone, and fracture in multicomponent alloys.


Zengqian Liu, Zhefeng Zhang, Robert O. Ritchie. On the Materials Science of Nature’s Arms Race. Advanced Materials 2018, volume 30, 1705220

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