Some types of beetle have shells that are so strong they can survive being run over by a car. Capable of withstanding 39,000 times their own weight, their shells have layers connecting in a jigsaw-like pattern that adapt to pressure by spreading and stretching, dispersing weight to protect the beetle.
It was this ingenious quirk of nature that got engineers at Purdue University in the US thinking. Could the same idea be used to help strengthen buildings coming under pressure during natural disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes?
Using cement paste – a key ingredient of the concrete and mortar used in constructing buildings – they then used 3D printing to create architectural designs that mimicked the crack-resistant exoskeletons of beetles and other arthropods. These bio-inspired designs enabled the 3D printed paste to behave differently, controlling how damage spread between the printed layers of a material.
And while it’s still early days, this pioneering 3D cement paste could have dramatic implications for building safety, by increasing damage tolerance and fracture resistance in a material that’s intrinsically brittle. Learning how a beetle’s shell adapts to disperse force could inspire architects to create stronger, safer and more resilient buildings.
Interestingly, it’s not the first time that beetles have sparked great inventions. The teeth of wood-boring beetles were the inspiration for the modern chain saw. And there are endless other examples of bio-inspired design. Barbed wire was inspired by a thorny tree found in Texas, and Velcro was inspired by the sticky burs on plants that cling to clothing and animals.
Back in the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote that man would never devise ‘any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does.’ He may have had a point but it hasn’t stopped people trying and this tenaciousness has spurred all sorts of inventions – what might come next?