How global experts are using nature to unlock next-gen materials 

An IFM Professor has joined a global team of experts in an analysis of how engineers are drawing inspiration from nature to design more superior structural materials. 

 Professor Luke Henderson, who leads IFM’s surface chemistry and interface team, was among the experts who delved into the promise and challenges behind ‘bioinspired nanocomposites’ in a new review paper for Nature Materials. 

Prof. Henderson’s fellow co-authors are from some of the top universities in the world – University of Oxford; University of Cambridge; MIT; University College London; Johns Hopkins University; University of Colorado Boulder; Georgia Institute of Technology; Carnegie Mellon University; Duke University; Tufts University; University of Michigan; University of California San Diego; and Rice University. 

According to the researchers, nature-inspired materials could, one day, lead to new and better solar panels, soft robots and even coatings for hypersonic jets. 

Prof. Henderson said the published paper was significant due to the popularity of using natural materials as inspiration for advancements. 

‘The latest developments in this field need to be regularly updated and there are growing numbers of reports coming out in this area,’ he said. 

‘A key point about composites was how to manage the interface between the constituent materials.  

‘Often these materials have significantly different, and incompatible, physical and chemical properties and so the interface – where they physically meet – is where they can communicate on a molecular level,’ he said. 

‘In our case the use of carbon fibres and polymers represent hard and soft materials, respectively. If their interface is very poorly compatible the overall performance of the composite is significantly reduced. In our work we control the interface in an effort to maximise the complementarity and get the most out of each material.’  

Prof. Henderson’s team are often inspired by the biological world – in recent years, his team used variable interface mechanics modelled from a turtle shell interlocking structure to significantly increase the performance of carbon fibre laminates.  

‘Similarly, we have used optical effects to generate coloured, and colour changing, carbon fibres, using simple benchtop strategies,’ he said. 

‘The use of interface tailoring to install novel properties was recently reported by us to increase the toughness of polypropylene-carbon fibre composites.  

‘By using these approaches the most challenging and demanding polymeric materials can be used in composites and matched for their interfacial complementarity.’ 

This approach led to the team to discover a process that turned the colour of carbon fibres from black to electric blue.  

Previously there were only two ways to change the colour of carbon fibres – either painting the surface or weaving the fibres with a dyed fabric. 

‘The real kick is that it works by the same mechanism as nature’s way to generate blue colours,’ Prof. Henderson says. 

‘Blue in nature is very hard to generate with a pigment – what it does is it actually uses the wavelengths of light to interact with each other.  

‘It’s the same way that butterflies and peacocks generate their iridescent blue. So we went with a bio-inspired colour generation theme rather than a pigment approach.’ 

Currently, Prof. Henderson and his team are currently taking a bioinspired approach to the management of hard-soft interfaces to improve the performance of reclaimed carbon fibres. 

We hope that if we can use this methodology to bring the performance of reclaimed carbon fibres to that of pristine virgin materials, this would increase the incentive to both recycle composites and incorporate reclaimed fibre into second life applications in structures,’ he said.