Materials scientists have long been fascinated by mother of pearl, also known as nacre, (NACK-er) because it is several times stronger than nylon, said Nicholas Kotov, associate professor at the U-M College of Engineering. Kotov's team has now succeeded in making artificial nacre.
"We think this material will be tremendously important because different sensors, different electronic materials, space shuttles, airplanes and even cars require thin sheets of ultra-strong material," said Kotov. "Additionally, we can engineer now, on a very accurate basis, the mechanical properties of the composites that we make."
Seeking a way to strengthen the artificially made nacre, researchers substituted in a material called chitosan, which is a naturally occurring compound in insect shells and the cell walls of fungi.
The nanocomposite films are made by layering molecules on top of each other. Scientists dip a substrate into a solution of electrolytes, which carries electrical current, then into a clay solution. During this process, molecules bind to the substrate and begin to form layers. The dipping is done in a specific sequence to control different properties of the film as it is layered.
"As we build up the film, we can change its structure and therefore change the mechanical and other properties," said Kotov.
Kotov and graduate students Paul Podsiadlo and Zhiyong Tang will discuss their research on the chitosan-based artificial nacre at the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego on March 16.
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The University of Michigan College of Engineering is ranked among the top engineering schools in the country. Michigan Engineering boasts one of the largest engineering research budgets of any public university, at $135 million for 2004. Michigan Engineering has 11 departments and two NSF Engineering Research Centers. Within those departments and centers, there is a special emphasis on research in three emerging areas: nanotechnology and integrated microsystems; cellular and molecular biotechnology; and information technology. The College is seeking to raise $110 million for capital building projects and program support in these areas to further research discovery. The CoE's goal is to advance academic scholarship and market cutting edge research to improve public health and well being.
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