Latest in Science

Image credit:

Diatoms are a biological wonder material, new study says

They're extremely resilient, thanks to their porous surface.

Caltech professor Julia Greer and her team have taken a really close look at diatoms and found them to be tougher and more resilient than previously thought. Diatoms are single-celled, mostly microscopic algae encased in hard shells made of silica called "frustules." To figure out just how durable they really are, Greer and her team made beams out of frustules and conducted three-point bending experiments on them. According to their tests, it has the highest specific strength among all known biological materials. In other words, it has higher strength-to-weight ratio than bones, teeth and even antlers, all of which are known for being sturdy.

While silica is an inherently resilient material, it's also brittle. It's like glass that will break when you drop it. Frustules, however, are dotted with honeycomb-like holes, and the team believes that their porous surface is the feature that prevents them from cracking and breaking. As Greer says, "[t]he presence of the holes delocalizes the concentrations of stress on the structure." That's why while other groups of scientists are building things out of graphene -- another wonder material -- this Caltech team plans to create bio-inspired artificial structures using diatoms.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr