Aircraft designers are always on the lookout for tough but lightweight materials. Chris Broomell of the University of California, Santa Barbara may have found a new candidate—on the head of a worm.
The ragworm, sometimes called the sandworm (but not to be confused with the hideous but fictional creatures from Dune), boasts two ultra-tough pincers that it uses to burrow into ocean sediment. At 90 percent protein, you’d expect the worm’s mouth-parts to be tough, Broomell told New Scientist, but they have an additional secret—they’re fortified with zinc. The metal bonds those proteins together, and the result is three times stronger than the polymers humans can currently create.
Broomell hopes that engineers in the future could copy nature’s technique of changing a material’s durability by adding metal. But, he says, his research is in the early stages, so don’t expect NASA to send up a spacecraft built with worm-inspired materials in the near future.
It’s not out of the question that an organic material like the sandworm pincer could heal itself, Broomell says. If aircraft designers could co-opt that quality, it would put a whole new spin on self-repairing planes.