More times than not, humanity plagiarizes naturally occurring phenomenon when trying to create something synthetically. A New Scientist story reports that such is the case with next-generation armor being modeled after a deep-sea snail's impenetrable shell.
Many animals have impressive armor. Drawing upon the wisdom of the animal kingdom when it comes to protecting our own bodies is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Take a look at chain mail armor from the Middle Ages. What does it resemble? Scales. The word “armadillo” actually means “little armored one” in Spanish, and the small, tank-like creature is perhaps the best-known armored animal — so much so, that there was actually an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) in the 1970s that went by that name.
This deep-sea snail, however, is being studied for a new type of armor. The scaly-footed gastropod, or Crysomallon squamiferum, was discovered in 1999 and lives near the hydrothermal vents on the Central Indian Ridge of the ocean. Its shell is comprised of three different layers that together make it impenetrable, unbreakable, and lightweight — the quintessential trifecta of armor.
Christine Ortiz and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are leading the study on how the snail’s shell successfully defends it against crab attacks.
The snail’s outermost layer is made up of a combination of iron sulphide particles that form in the hydrothermal vents and a soft organic matrix made by the snail itself. This layer has the ability to absorb the energy of a blow by cracking, but without breaking. The iron sulphide particles also have the potential to dull or blunt the attacker’s claws, the study suggests.
The thick middle layer of the shell simply acts as padding to further dissipate the energy of the blow. This helps protect the snail’s fragile inner shell, which is made of calcium carbonate.
The three-layer design could be used to improve body armor without adding additional bulk or weight, which is the name of the game when it comes to better armor.
The New Scientist story says, “The idea of coating armor in iron-based nanoparticles that dissipate the energy of a blow by generating microcracks is ‘largely unexplored in synthetic systems’ and particularly promising, says Cortiz.”
If the snail’s shell is able to be reproduced synthetically, it could not only give better protection to soldiers and law enforcement officers, but could also be used in Arctic pipelines that collide with icebergs, preventing catastrophic oil spills.