By Larry Buzecky, AEM Vice President, Business Intelligence & Strategy  

I assumed you thought the answer was spider silk. And you are wrong – it’s sea snail teeth.

If you want to get weird for a moment (and still keep it safe for the kids), there is no faster way to get there than following new materials research and development. In the February 18, 2015 issue of The Royal Society journal Interface, it was reported that the teeth of the common limpet species (Patella vulgata) are “tougher than Kevlar and stronger than spider silk,“ as published on the livescience website.

Just to (stickily) touch on spider silk for a moment, for years this substance has been considered the material du jour for potentially dramatic innovation. As we’ve seen with carbon fiber and titanium, experimental materials research that go mainstream can have enormous implications for military, industrial and consumer applications.

In fact, spider silk had such a cache that genetic engineers started experimenting with goats to have them secrete spider silk in their milk in order to increase production capacity. As noted in the BioSteel wiki, the value proposition behind such experimentation was clearly defined[Spider silk] is reportedly 7-10 times as strong as steel if compared for the same weight, and can stretch up to 20 times its unaltered size without losing its strength properties. It also has very high resistance to extreme temperatures, not losing any of its properties within -20 to 330 degrees Celsius.

So what about the goats?

When the female goats lactate, the milk, containing the recombinant DNA silk, was to be harvested and subjected to chromatographic techniques to purify the recombinant silk proteins.

Alas, despite best efforts here, commercial quantities of goat-expressed spider silk has still not been achieved.

Back to sea snail teeth. According to livescience, “The limpet uses composite fibers that are thousands of times thinner than the man-made nanofibers in airplanes, bulletproof vests or bicycle frames. The biological composites are a mix of the iron oxide mineral goethite and chitin, which acts like a natural plastic… The teeth fibers withstood a pulling force that was equivalent to a spaghetti strand hoisting 3,000 bags of sugar, equivalent to about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms)…

As manufacturers look to optimize material strength while lightening equipment weight, Nature continues to serve as an almost limitless pool of resources to draw from. After all, any creature that has survived up to this point must have exercised some extensive materials innovation itself in order to sustain that survival.

Manufacturers looking to stay competitive with stronger, lighter and faster competitor products must also be willing to continuously innovate – or at least be receptive to the research that flows from unusual corners of the scientific universe.

If you’re still reading this article, I encourage you to breeze through a slideshow, also courtesy of livescience, where other animal and plant compositions are inspiring new and fascinating technologies.