You could get lucky and see a “wandering meatloaf,” a circular reddish-brown mollusk also known as the gumboot chiton or, more technically, Cryptochiton stelleri, if you scour the North Pacific shorelines. With its little but extremely gritty teeth, it trudges along coastlines scraping algae off rocks.
Scientists discovered that the stylus (the long, hollow structure that links the teeth to the soft membrane below) of this strange animal contained microscopic particles of santabarbaraite. This rare iron-based mineral had previously only been detected in genuine rocks. Santabarbaraite is the mineral that gives these mollusks their bite; it makes the root of their teeth light but incredibly powerful, and it’s one of the most rigid materials ever discovered in nature. The finding of how santabarbaraite integrates into chiton teeth might assist in developing 3-D printing technology, and aid scientists in better understand how they eat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported the findings.
The researchers employed several modern imaging techniques, including microscopy and spectroscopy, to examine the animal’s teeth. While scientists were aware that these mollusks had strong teeth, discovering santabarbaraite inside the stylus was a pleasant surprise. In a statement, Derk Joester, a material scientist at Northwestern University and the paper’s principal author, said, “[This mineral] has never been observed in a living environment.” “It has high water content, making it robust while maintaining a low density. We hope that by doing so, we will be able to toughen the teeth without putting too much pressure on them.”
The scientists also discovered that the distribution of minerals inside the tissues that make up the stylus impacted the stiffness of the various regions of the hollow structure. They wondered whether they might utilize the same technique to create more durable 3-D printing ink. The researchers used a chitin-like molecule and iron and phosphate to create a synthetic santabarbaraite substitute.
When printed just after mixing, the ink worked nicely and toughened as it dried. The printed material could be soft and rubbery or solid and solid, depending on how much iron and phosphate were added to the mix.
The New York Times quoted Joester as saying, “It should be feasible to mix the ink at a ratio that you may modify right before printing.”
“And that would allow you to adjust the material’s composition, the number of nanoparticles, and hence strength on the fly. That is, you may print materials with quite dramatic strength fluctuations over quite short distances.”
The natural world is a fantastic area for scientists to get ideas about addressing engineering and design difficulties. “This remains a huge barrier in modern production, so we turn to organisms like the chiton to understand how this is done in nature, which has had a couple hundred million years to develop,” Joester said in a release.