Throughout history man has turned to nature for inspiration. Van Gogh painted sunflowers, Vivaldi composed an ode to nature in his piece “Spring” and Henry David Thoreau wrote “Walden” after two years on Walden Pond. In recent years, scientists have turned to nature for that very same spark of creativity. Biomimicry, modeling design on biological entities and processes, has become an important source of inspiration for many scientists and engineers, including Dr. Brett Compton of the University of Tennessee.
Compton has focused his Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project on bio-inspired hybrid materials created with 3D printing, using natural materials and structures as a source for design.
“We’re looking at how to put together materials on a fairly fine scale to get properties that don’t exist in those materials independently,” said Compton. Compton’s work is specifically aimed at creating new high temperature ceramic materials that can be utilized by the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). He is modelling the design of these ceramics on the structure of seashells.
“There’s one part of a seashell called nacre, or mother of pearl. It’s comprised of very tiny ceramic platelets that are stacked together in a staggered way. Throughout and connecting them all is a very gooey and pliant biopolymer,” said Compton.
This microstructure is very similar to what one would see looking at a cinder block wall and is known as a “brick and mortar structure.” In seashells, this structure of 95% ceramics and 5% polymer creates a structure 1000 times more resistant to cracking than ceramic alone. Compton plans to leverage this design to create a ceramic plate for the High Flux Isotope Reactor that can be made through a more efficient and cost effective process.
Compton’s ORNL partner, Dr. Kurt Terrani, is providing the last piece of the puzzle by taking the printed structures and consolidating them to full density with secondary heating equipment available in Oak Ridge. Compton hopes his JDRD research can be built into opportunities for bringing external funding into the University.
“This design approach doesn’t have to be nuclear related. That’s our approach, but it could be for armor, it could be for brake discs, it could be for jet engine components,” said Compton. “With this kind of bio-architecture, there’s a lot to learn when you look closely at nature.”