The seashell's inner beauty

ARLINGTON, Va. -- There is more to mother-of-pearl than good looks. Also called nacre, the gleaming, white material is renowned in scientific circles for its strong, yet flexible, properties. Now researchers have developed a nanoscale, layered material that comes close to nacre's properties, including its iridescence. The ability to nanomanufacture artificial nacre may provide lightweight, rigid composites for aircraft parts, artificial bone and other applications.

Reporting online in Nature Materials on May 25, Nicholas Kotov and his colleagues at Oklahoma State University and at Digital Instruments/Veeco describe their method for creating nacre-like material that consists of alternating layers of clay and a type of polymer called a polyelectrolyte. Kotov received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award to pursue the work.

"The discovery allows researchers to tailor flexible materials to a given application--to get the tough materials that nature has been able to produce," said Lynn Schneemeyer, the NSF program officer who oversees Kotov's award. NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

Natural nacre owes much of its strength and flexibility to an internal brick-like structure. Protein layers only nanometers (billionths of a meter) thick provide the pliable "mortar," while calcium carbonate, the principal chemical in limestone and antacids, comprises the similarly miniscule "bricks" adding hardness.

In the artificial nacre, platelets of a negatively-charged clay called montmorillonite provide the bricks while fibers of a positively-charged polyelectrolyte called poly(diallydimethylammonium) chloride (PDDA) serve as the mortar. The opposite charges help the two components bond tightly to form the nacre structure.

"The combination of montmorillonite and PDDA for nacre modeling came to us quite naturally," said Kotov

Contact: Josh Chamot
National Science Foundation

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