Shellfish inspire chemists to create stronger, more sustainable adhesives

Wilker notes that not everyone in their lab has a degree in chemistry; Some of the lab members are shellfish – about 1,000 of them. The shellfish play a valuable role in showing how they make adhesives so scientists can build on their biological strategies. Photo credit: Purdue University, Rebecca McElhoe

Jonathan Wilker, Professor of Chemistry and Materials Engineering at Purdue University (Lafayette, Ind., USA) is following a study of shellfish to develop new adhesives that work underwater, are stronger and more sustainable, are made from food and can be used in Needs to be resolved. The professor was originally inspired by the shellfish that have stuck to ocean rocks for eons, supposedly by a natural glue that tends to be stronger and more durable than anything man-made.

“We first look at animals that make adhesives,” says Wilker. “We’re still working on understanding the basics of how animals like clams and oysters do, what they do, how chemistry and technology work together. We even see how the environment around them and the surface on which they stick affects their actions. “

Living things like barnacles, clams and oysters live in places where they are constantly hit by waves and wind and preyed on by potential predators. Their lives depend on their ability to cling to rocks and the neighboring shellfish.

Also, sutures, screws, and staples are all widely used to close wounds, tie tissue, and hold bones in place, but they are all very harmful and extremely painful. If doctors instead had a chemical glue they could use instead, Wilker believes, healing would increase and collateral damage decreased. For adhesives, however, the body is a challenging environment: wet and constantly in motion. Much like the sea.

Scientists in Wilker’s laboratory – which includes two postdocs, five doctoral students, four undergraduate students and 1,000 shellfish – have studied how shellfish make materials, which components of the adhesives play an active role in bonding, and are testing new synthetic and biomimetic adhesives to determine their Feasibility and performance. In the same laboratory, Wilker and his team also work on producing adhesives from organic and food-based compounds.

Jonathan Wilker, professor of chemistry at Purdue University

Jonathan Wilker, Professor of Chemistry, is studying shellfish to develop adhesives that are more sustainable, stronger, and work in a wider range of environments than current adhesives. Photo credit: Purdue University Photo, Rebecca McElhoe.

“We manufacture adhesives with new functionalities,” says Wilker. “We can add new chemical groups to achieve all sorts of properties, be it wet adhesion, rubbery flexibility, or the ability to bind and then loosen again. One of our systems can even be stronger than what the animals make underwater. In this case we are using chemistry that is inspired by the shellfish, but overall our system is a simplification of what the animals produce. “

Overall, improving the sustainability and functionality of adhesives can improve human life in a variety of ways by limiting exposure to harmful chemicals, making healing more convenient, and making products more sustainable and recyclable to save resources and the planet.

“Almost every common adhesive is based on petroleum and is not degradable,” says Wilker. “When your laptops or cell phones, shoes or furniture are no longer needed, most of them end up directly on the landfill. Even materials like cardboard are often not recycled because of the adhesives. “

Adhesion is a rapidly evolving field with great potential, according to the university. Wilker is a recognized expert in this area, thanks to a stray curiosity in the sea.

“The core ideas in our laboratory come from the time under water,” says Wilker. “I was diving, saw shells clinging to rocks and thought, ‘I wonder how it works.’ When I got back to the lab, I was surprised to learn what was still unknown. There are so many exciting opportunities and uses that we can pursue once we find out everything. “

As professor of chemistry at the College of Science and professor of materials technology, Wilker aims to connect the worlds of science and technology in his efforts to open up nature for innovative solutions to adhesion problems. The Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation help fund his research.

Wilker worked with the Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization to file patents for its adhesives with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He begins making them commercially available through commercial ventures including a startup, Mussel Polymers Inc. (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA).

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