Nature is a master materials designer. Millions of years of relentless adaption have evolved myriad high-performance materials that help living organisms thrive.
The blues, greens, and purples of the abalone shell held by assistant professor Nima Rahbar, PhD, shimmer like an iridescent glaze on fragile china. But appearances can be deceiving.
“This will resist a shark bite,” he says. “It’s a fantastic material: light, strong, and incredibly tough.”
Fascinated by biology from an early age, Rahbar is a materials scientist who seeks innovation by studying natural forms at the nanoscale. “The beauty of nature is that it optimizes for everything, all at the same time,” he says. “If we can learn why these substances are so beautifully tough, then we can apply that knowledge to create better, high-performance materials.”
Toughness is key for Rahbar. He is interested in the ability of a material to resist cracking, or to localize the impact of a small crack so it doesn’t spread and cause the whole system to fail. Glass, he notes, is strong but not tough. A sheet of glass can carry a stable, heavy load. But introduce one crack, and the sheet will shatter.