Go to the dentist and you could soon come away with a limpet filling – the sea creature's teeth contain a material stronger than anything discovered or created before, and this has the potential for use by humans.
By pulling the teeth apart all the way down to individual atoms in a laboratory, engineers at the University of Portsmouth found an incredibly thin mineral called goethite inside.
Its fibres, entwined through a protein base in a pattern similar to that found inside strengthened plastics, were able to connect so tightly that no holes or flaws were present between them –and it is these that usually make a structure weak and eventually break. At the centre of the teeth, the fibres were 100 times thinner than a human hair.
"We discovered that the fibres of goethite are just the right size to make up a resilient composite structure," explained Dr Asa Barber, lead researcher in the study.
"This discovery means that the fibrous structures found in limpet teeth could be mimicked and used in high-performance engineering applications.”
It's no surprise that the teeth are so tough – the little umbrella-shaped sea creatures have to lock onto coastal rock surfaces extremely tightly while powerful waves crash into them, and use them to carve out scars in the rock surface so they can hide when the tide goes out.
Until now, spider's silk was considered to be the strongest earthly material, and no manmade carbon-based structure has shown such abilities, including "super-material" graphene.
On average, the strength of limpet teeth was found to be around five times greater than most spider silk. The results are published in the journal Royal Society Interface
Using limpet teeth to improve man-made designs
Using a technique called “bioinspiration”, scientists hope to replicate the goethite's qualities in a lab, and use similar synthetic materials to improve the designs of man-made structures. These include:
- Formula 1 cars
- Dental fillings