Mollusc shell features could be replicated in synthetic fabrics

Warwick University’s £1.3m supercomputer is analysing the natural properties of a tiny mollusc shell so that they can be replicated in synthetic materials.

The mollusc shell is made up of only one mineral: calcium carbonate, yet the combination of that plus other enzymes and proteins gives it remarkable properties in terms of strength, while remaining incredibly light.

Prof Mark Rodger, project leader and director of Warwick University’s Centre for Scientific Computing, told The Engineer: ‘The whole point of this project is to try to understand what happens when you make hybrid materials that are partly organic and partly inorganic.’

By modelling the process of its construction on the computer over the next few months, the team is hoping to guide the future development of materials, which replicate these natural properties in a synthetic format.

The scientists believe it could revolutionise building materials in the future and even improve synthetic bone substitutes for use in operations such as hip replacements.

In its attempt to replicate the material, the team is drawing on the enormous capacity of the supercomputer to run models and analyses.

Rodger explained: ‘For parts of the project we’re having to look and follow the dynamics of thousands and thousands of atoms at the same time. To try and pick out patterns, we need to use the supercomputer.’

The supercomputer, built using IBM hardware, has 3,192 cores and a peak processing performance of 35.75 teraflops.

Matt Ismail, manager of the Centre for Scientific Computing, said: ‘Speed is certainly one benefit but there are some problems that you just couldn’t run on smaller system… sometimes you need a minimum number of processors.’

Warwick is aiming to support local SMEs by granting them the opportunity to access the supercomputer and offering expertise where necessary.