Mind & Matter


New Adhesive Inspired by Mussels

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Mussels secrete byssal fibers to adhere to surfaces underwater. Image courtesy of Phillip Messersmith, Northwestern University.


Increased attention to material chemistry has encouraged greater scrutiny of adhesives used in building construction. Necessary components in assemblies and composites, adhesives provide important functionality—yet they often consist of synthetic chemicals that off-gas during curing, leading to negative consequences for human and environmental health.

The biomimicry movement has inspired a search for more environmentally-friendly adhesives that perform as well or better than conventional products. The strength and resilience of natural glues secreted by mussels, for example, have long baffled scientists. Capable of resisting constant pounding by ocean waves, mussels' forceful grip is due to the secretion of byssal holdfast fibers—the focus of recent analysis by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Germany.

This week, University of Chicago scientists announced the capability of synthesizing these fibers. The key to their success is due to the use of metals, which form strong and flexible bonds—as opposed to the strong yet brittle bonds of conventional adhesives. Working with a long-chain polymer developed by Northwestern University, the University of Chicago adhesive is able to cure underwater and repair itself within a matter of minutes. Still in the testing phase, the new adhesive could prove to be a superior material both in terms of its mechanical performance as well as its influence on human and environmental health.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.