Deer antlers could inspire tough biomaterials

A team from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has been examining the structure of deer antlers, hoping their toughness can inspire a range of biomaterials that can be 3D printed.

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Unlike horns, antlers are true bone and are composed primarily of calcium and phosphorus. Using state-of-the-art computer modelling and x-ray techniques, the scientists examined antlers at a nanoscale level, searching for the structures that allow the appendages to take such abuse when male deer clash.

“The fibrils that make up the antler are staggered rather than in line with each other,” said study  first author Paolino De Falco from QMUL’s School of Engineering and Materials Science.

“This allows them to absorb the energy from the impact of a clash during a fight.”

The research, published in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering, found that the antlers’ strength came from the axially staggered arrangement of stiff mineralized collagen fibrils, coupled with weak, damageable interfibrillar interfaces. This newly discovered structure can hopefully be replicated to create a new range of materials that are resistant to damage, and which could even be 3D printed.

“Our next step is to create a 3D printed model with fibres arranged in staggered configuration and linked by an elastic interface,” said study co-author Dr Ettore Barbieri, also from QMUL’s School of Engineering and Materials Science.

“The aim is to prove that additive manufacturing – where a prototype can be created a layer at a time – can be used to create damage-resistant composite material.”