Natural Building Blocks

In hollowed holes of

Knotted cells,

Tensile echoes

Bubble beneath the surface –

Frothing with potential

As they wait to break

Free from the confines

Of their cellular walls.

Synthetic solutions:

Nurtured in nature.

 

Tangled webs of

Dew-lined geometries

Glimmer gently,

Their native silks

Bearing broken bodies

That belay their

Precious cargo betwixt

Fragile manacles

Of suppurating steel.

Synthetic solutions:

Nurtured in nature.

 

In empty clean rooms

Dexterous fingers replicate

Acidic glands,

Weaving matrices of artificial silk

Through interlocking fibrils;

Small and slender fibres

That stitch together proteins

To form structural assemblies

That blend into the landscape

From which they were taken.

Synthetic solutions:

Nurtured in nature.

An image of a cellulose nanofibril, taken by a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM); 200 nm = 200 nanometres, roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair (Image Credit: Pezhman Mohammadi et al.)

This poem was inspired by recent research, which has investigated how a combination of wood fibres and spider silk could be used as a possible replacement for plastic.

A material’s strength refers to its ability to carry a load, while its toughness relates to how much energy is needed to break it, and typically these two properties tend to be mutually exclusive. Consider, for example, a porcelain plate: it is strong enough to carry food (high strength), but shatters if it is dropped (low toughness). Similarly, a tennis ball is easily squashed out of shape (low strength), but it doesn’t break if it is dropped (high toughness). Creating materials with both a high strength and a high toughness has been a great challenge in material engineering. However, new research has shown that nature offers potential solutions.

In this study, researchers were able to combine protein based on spider silk (high toughness) with the cellulose taken from plant walls (high strength) to create a material that outperforms most of today’s synthetic materials by simultaneously providing high strength and high toughness. A further advantage of these materials is that they are fully biodegradable, and so they do not damage nature in the same way as plastics and other synthetics.

An audio version of this poem can be heard here:

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