Exotic new materials inspired by plants
To create the next generation of synthetic materials, researchers are turning to nature for inspiration. Plants are intricately designed and efficient structures, with a variety of components performing critical roles in the organism’s success. The outermost layer known as the cuticle, for example, is a smart polymer composite material which controls the regulation of water permeability or protection, forms structural colours, and provides either smooth, frictionless surfaces or sticky ones. These impressive traits can be translated into new materials for human benefit, thanks to the innovation of researchers funded under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. The PlaMatSu project has been investigating these properties to come up with innovative new materials, and had two main goals. One was to address current challenges of creating new materials, through analysing the structure and functions of plant cuticles. The other side of the project involved educating the next generation of scientists, to train newcomers to turn bio-inspired science into innovation. “PlaMatSu sought to develop new functional materials and surfaces that are inspired by the structure, function and working principles of the plant cuticle,” says PlaMatSu’s coordinator Nico Bruns, professor of Macromolecular Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
What we can learn from plants
PlaMatSu gained new fundamental understanding of the developmental factors and genetic underpinnings of the structure of a plant cuticle. They found it to be a multifunctional, hierarchically structured material. Scientists in the project team included biologists, chemists and physicists, and studied things like the structural colour properties of the cuticle. “My favourite results are the environmentally friendly glitter based on cellulose nanocrystals, and studies of how plant surface topology influences insect adhesion,” notes Bruns. The role leaf surfaces play to repel insects is something which was reported in an article in 'Scientific American'. The researchers used everything that they had learned from analysing plant structures to then create novel synthetic materials that hold similar properties.
A new generation of biomimicry experts
The second strand of the project involved training new researchers. PlaMatSu trained a total of nine early-stage researchers (ESRs) to a PhD level in the field of bio-inspired materials and surfaces. As Bruns explains, this was the perfect opportunity to supervise ambitious researchers by internationally renowned experts on bio-inspired materials. The ESRs have now completed their research, and are now finalising their PhDs. Soon they will be fully trained and ready to embark on promising careers in academia and industry. “The EU money enabled an international PhD school at the forefront of bio-inspired materials research,” adds Bruns.
Communicating the research
The PlaMatSu project carried out a wide range of efforts to communicate the research they were undertaking. This included publishing studies in prominent journals such as 'Advanced Materials', one of the leading scientific journals for materials research. The ESRs also organised an exhibition, entitled ‘Our Future is Nature Inspired’, which was held at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden from September to November 2020. Some researchers were interviewed on the BBC Look East TV programme, discussing their research. Collaborations between the various research groups are continuing, and the teams based in the United Kingdom are working to establish a United Kingdom-based research centre for bio-inspired material systems. They are currently working towards a major funding application.
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