World’s strongest natural material found in limpet teeth

Researchers have found that limpet teeth possess biological structures so strong they could be copied and used in the structure of cars, boats and planes of the future.

The study from Portsmouth University examined the small-scale mechanical behaviour of teeth from limpets using atomic force microscopy.

In a statement project leader Prof Asa Barber from the University’s School of Engineering said: ‘Nature is a wonderful source of inspiration for structures that have excellent mechanical properties. All the things we observe around us, such as trees, the shells of sea creatures and the limpet teeth studied in this work, have evolved to be effective at what they do.

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‘Until now we thought that spider silk was the strongest biological material because of its super-strength and potential applications in everything from bullet-proof vests to computer electronics but now we have discovered that limpet teeth exhibit a strength that is potentially higher.’

Prof Barber found that the teeth contain goethite, a mineral that forms in the limpet as it grows.

He said: ‘Limpets need high strength teeth to rasp over rock surfaces and remove algae for feeding when the tide is in. We discovered that the fibres of goethite are just the right size to make up a resilient composite structure.

‘This discovery means that the fibrous structures found in limpet teeth could be mimicked and used in high-performance engineering applications such as Formula 1 racing cars, the hulls of boats and aircraft structures.

‘Engineers are always interested in making these structures stronger to improve their performance or lighter so they use less material.’

The research also discovered that limpet teeth are the same strength no matter what the size.

‘Generally a big structure has lots of flaws and can break more easily than a smaller structure, which has fewer flaws and is stronger. The problem is that most structures have to be fairly big so they’re weaker than we would like. Limpet teeth break this rule as their strength is the same no matter what the size.’

According to the University, the material Prof Barber tested was almost 100 times thinner than the diameter of a human hair so the techniques used to break such a sample have only just been developed.

He said: ‘The testing methods were important as we needed to break the limpet tooth. The whole tooth is slightly less than a millimetre long but is curved, so the strength is dependent on both the shape of the tooth and the material. We wanted to understand the material strength only so we had to cut out a smaller volume of material out of the curved tooth structure.’

The research,  published this week in the Royal Society journal Interface, represents further advances in the field of biomimetics. Click here to read more.