(Program not available for streaming.) What happens when scientists open up nature's toolbox? In "Making Stuff Wilder," David Pogue explores bold new innovations inspired by the Earth's greatest inventor, life itself. From robotic "mules" and "cheetahs" for the military, to fabrics born out of fish slime, host David Pogue travels the globe to find the world’s wildest new inventions and technologies. It is a journey that sees today's microbes turned into tomorrow’s metallurgists, viruses building batteries, and ideas that change not just the stuff we make, but the way we make our stuff. As we develop our own new technologies, what can we learn from billions of years of nature’s research?
Making Stuff Wilder
PBS Airdate: October 24, 2013
DAVID POGUE: Civilization is built on the human drive to invent. We take the raw stuff of our planet, the materials that give names to the ages, and craft them into new forms, expanding our horizons, exploring hidden worlds and engineering life-changing technologies, always pushing the limits to be colder, faster, safer, wilder!
And now a new era is upon us, as scientists turn for inspiration to the ultimate inventor and engineer, nature. What can we learn from living things to make our own technology even better?
How long before they become self-aware and turn on their overlords?
I'm David Pogue, and I am on a quest for the world's wildest new stuff. From a carnivorous tropical plant,…
Whoa, Little Shop of Horrors.
…to an elephant's trunk,…
A little elephant snot for you.
…there's a revolution underway, as scientists borrow the best ideas nature has to offer…
I feel like an outtake from Ghostbusters.
…and put them to work, creating a robot as big as an ox,…
LS3, get up.
…and just as sturdy on its feet;…
…even teaching viruses…
…to make batteries!
Nature has been making stuff for billions of years. What happens when scientists open up its toolbox to make stuff wilder?
We humans love to invent. We've been doing it for thousands of years, but how many of our inventions really stand the test of time?
Now,imagine a world filled with only the very best stuff: amazing ideas and astonishing designs, each one the result, not just of years, not of decades, but millions of years of research and testing in an environment where the competition can be ruthless.
Since life began on Earth, it has been innovating, making discoveries in materials and engineering we've only recently begun to appreciate. The hard-won lessons of life on Earth, gained over eons, may help solve our very human problems.
Can forms found in nature reshape our machines, making them more useful? Can we build the agile movements of animals into our robots? Have some of the best ideas for new materials already been discovered by nature? What if we could make things like nature does? Can we grow the electronics and fuels of tomorrow, using the code of life itself: D.N.A.?
The search for answers to these questions has taken some strange turns.
Here at the University of Guelph, about an hour outside Toronto, materials scientist Atsuko Negishi and biologist Julia Herr think that these lovely creatures called hagfish may revolutionize how we make strong materials.
JULIA HERR (University of Guelph): So these are Pacific hagfish. They are well-known for their unique defense mechanism.
DAVID POGUE: So, if I wanted to see this, what would we do? Like, could we poke it with a stick?
JULIA HERR: I think the best way to do it is to reach in there and grab one.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, my gosh. Look at that. Disgusting.
JULIA HERR: There you go.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, no. I've been slimed! I feel like an outtake from Ghostbusters. Look at the quantities of this stuff. This is like three times the volume of the fish. How could all this slime come out of that tiny thing?
It's an impressive display of "slime-ocity." And it works great as a defense. When a gill-breathing predator bites down on a hagfish, it gets a mouth full of slime. With its gills clogged, it becomes more worried about suffocating than eating.
So how does the hagfish conjure all that slime? One of the key components is mucin, a family of proteins that includes, you guessed it, human mucus.
Mucin consists of a protein backbone, with lots of sugar side chains hanging off it, like bristles on a brush. These side chains attract water molecules, soaking them up remarkably well, in fact amazingly well.
Atsuko offers to show me what a little dab of hagfish juice can do.
ATSUKO NEGISHI (University of Guelph): So, this is a beaker of seawater. So, we're going to make some slime.
DAVID POGUE: It's getting a little misty.
ATSUKO NEGISHI: I'm just going to mix it up a little bit.
DAVID POGUE: All right.
ATSUKO NEGISHI: And if you could lift that out.
DAVID POGUE: Look at that. Oh, my gosh, that tiny dab…. Hey, there's no water left. It's taken the entire thing of water with it. That little tiny pea's worth of white stuff…
Would anyone like some? Children, there's plenty to go around.
While the mucin sucks up the water, it's a second component that holds the slime together, so I can pick it up: these threads, visible here.
Both components start out inside pores along the side of the hagfish. The water-loving mucin molecules are packed into one type of specialized cell, while the threads are wound tightly in another kind of cell. When under attack, the hagfish ejects the cells and they break open. The mucin molecules collect water molecules, while the threads, each about six-inches-long, unfurl, binding the mucin into a continuous and disgusting mass of slime.
It's these spider-silk-like threads that have really caught the researchers' attention. They might even serve as a model for a new kind of fiber, because they're surprisingly strong: ten times stronger than nylon, a synthetic material made from petroleum. If we could use hagfish fabric instead, it could help reduce our dependence on oil.
So, what are the steps involved in going from hagfish slime to handsome garments made of it?
ATSUKO NEGISHI: So, the first step would be to be able to artificially make these hagfish slime threads.
DAVID POGUE: It's early days, but Atsuko has been working on a process to create her own fiber, using proteins she's derived from freeze-dried hagfish thread. She mixes the proteins with formic acid and puts a few drops onto a salt solution, then draws up the material to create her own artificial hagfish thread.
So far, it doesn't test as strong as the original, but she has high hopes.
So you started with hagfish fiber. You treated it to come up with this component goop, put it back into saltwater, turned it back into a piece of thread. So you start with a thread, you ended with thread. Why didn't you just use the thread to begin with?
ATSUKO NEGISHI: One of the reasons is because we can't farm hagfish, and so…
DAVID POGUE: You can't farm hagfish?
ATSUKO NEGISHI: They don't currently reproduce in captivity, and so we can't have these big farms of hagfish.
DAVID POGUE: I see. Plus, it'd be a pain to get up at 4:00 in the morning to go milk the eels.
So, all of this thread-pulling is really in anticipation of the day Atsuko can synthesize her own hagfish proteins.
There it is: actual thread made of actual reconstituted fish mucus, the dawn of the era of hagfish fabric, right there.
Hmmm, what would that be like?
Nighttime is the right time for a fabric from the deep: Hagwear. But it's look, don't touch, or the surprise will be on you! Hagwear!
All right, hagfish fabric may not yet be runway-ready, but in the right hands, nature's innovations offer clues that can literally shape the stuff we make. Built to thrive in their environments, animal bodies offer winning designs and possible solutions to our own engineering challenges. After all, feathered wings inspired our metal ones; sleek swimmers helped shape our boats. What other new solutions can be found by studying the forms of animals?
I'm in Stuttgart, Germany, at the Wilhelma Zoo. It might be the perfect place to see the future shape of technology, according to engineer Heinrich Frontzek.
So, when an engineer, like you, comes to the zoo, do you see it differently from regular visitors?
HEINRICH FRONTZEK (Festo): I think so, because we want to get inspired by the nature, and here in the zoo, they're so concentrated, the huge variety of animals, all optimized for that application. And we are thinking in application, so why should…? This is a paradise for an engineer.
DAVID POGUE: Heinrich works for an automation company, trying to improve one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, the robotic arm. It's been revolutionizing factories since the first one was introduced, in 1961, at General Motors.
But robotic arms have some problems. Just like the one on humans, the traditional robot arm consists of rigid parts, joined together, often limiting its programmable motion. They're also dangerous. Get hit by one of these, and it's lights out, so robots often end up behind protective fences, unable to work closely with humans.
The German automation company Heinrich works for, Festo, decided to reinvent the robotic arm, making it more flexible and less dangerous. Heinrich leads me to the source of the inspiration. And it turns out, maybe, the best arm is a nose.
So why would you look at an elephant's trunk and think this would help you with automation?
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: As you can see, it's so flexible and transmits a lot of force and makes it much more easier to handle things. And this is our business, handling things, pick and place, to automate factory or process, and it makes sense to look into nature and to get inspired by nature, and the elephant is an excellent ambassador for that.
DAVID POGUE: Thanks to Zella, a 47-year-old Asian elephant, I get a little first-hand experience with what an elephant packs in its trunk.
Little elephant snot for you.
An elephant trunk is an impressive multi-tool, able to slurp up water…
ZOOKEEPER: Now she collects the water.
DAVID POGUE: …and squirt it.
Breakfast is on.
It picks up food like a vacuum cleaner, manipulates objects, and it's strong. Zella can use her trunk to lift over 400 pounds.
No, no, that's my wrist.
She could crush me like a bug, couldn't she?
ZOOKEEPER: Yes, yes, sir.
DAVID POGUE: Here, have some more peanuts.
But the trunk's most impressive attribute is its amazing flexibility. It comes from having no bones, and about 40,000 muscles, arranged lengthwise and in rings. With no bones and no joints, it's about as far away from a traditional robotic arm as you can get.
I head to Festo's headquarters, in nearby Esslingen, to see their version of the elephant trunk. They call it a "bionic handling assistant."
Now, this looks like a bionic handling assistant.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Yeah. You're absolutely right. This is our trunk.
DAVID POGUE: Festo's version of the trunk is made of plastic, with a series of air chambers inside. Filling different parts with compressed air causes it to bend.
So if I wanted to bend it that way?
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: We need a tube with compressed air for this expansion and then you get this bending to the other end.
DAVID POGUE: So this blows up like a balloon?
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Yes, for sure.
DAVID POGUE: They're testing the assistant with this simple motion, for use in a packaging operation.
Look at that, it tucks it in nicely. Well done, Dumbo.
But it is inherently more flexible than a conventional arm, and, just as important, far safer.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: We don't have electricity, we don't have steel and iron and all this masses, which are…could damage a person. It's a weight of five pounds. Some valves, a little control system…
DAVID POGUE: So there's really nothing here but plastic tubes and air.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Yeah.
DAVID POGUE: Does it do tricks?
In this application, the tip of the trunk works by suction, but Festo has experimented with what it calls a "fin gripper," inspired by fish fins.
If you push on the middle of a tail fin, it doesn't curl away from you as you might expect, it curls toward you, giving a fish much more efficient strokes. But Festo has built that principle into a gripper that curls around the object it needs to pick up, adapting to the shape.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: When we have to change the shape of the products we are handling, so, we need something flexible, more flexible. For this, it is very helpful to use a fish tail as a gripper.
DAVID POGUE: So, it looks to me like you're about to demonstrate how this might work.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Yes. We have two different gripping devices. One with a fish tail, and this is a traditional one the robots are using.
DAVID POGUE: Can I see these things close?
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Sure. Same pressure, everything is equal.
Now, we will see what happens. This is the old robot, and this is the bio-engineered method.
DAVID POGUE: Okay. Let the competition begin.
Look at that! Traditional robot hand, shattered to smithereens, and the fish tail gripper really did its job. So you have robot, zero; fish tail, one. You have stolen from nature and did a great job.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Thanks.
DAVID POGUE: Thank you very much. Oops! They'll edit all this out.
Combining the fin gripper with the elephant trunk produces a flexible, lightweight and safe robotic arm, ready for all sorts of applications.
HEINRICH FRONTZEK: Biomimicry, nowadays, it's part of the design process here at Festo, so everybody is using this cross-thinking, get inspired by nature and to transform these ideas into industrial applications.
DAVID POGUE: May I? Thank you.
Festo's handling assistant steals its form from the elephant trunk, but Festo isn't alone in adapting designs found in nature and applying to them to industry. The beak of the kingfisher bird breaks the water with very little resistance, inspiring the shape of this Japanese bullet train, so it would cut efficiently through the air. The shape of the yellow boxfish provides a rigid structure, and has very little drag for such a large volume, all reasons Mercedes-Benz used it for the design of a high-efficiency concept car.
But making machines that look like animals is one thing, what about making machines that move like them?
For thousands of years, when we've invented new forms of transportation, many have been based on a human insight not found in nature at all, the wheel. But there are plenty of places wheels can't go, even ones wearing a belt of tank tread.
The inability of our machines to traverse difficult terrain has dire consequences on the battlefield and in search and rescue. But while wheeled vehicles struggle off-road, there are some creatures getting around on legs. That's had engineers wondering, "What lessons can we learn from animal movement? Can we give our machines a leg up?"
Walking is easy for animals; even a toddler can do it.
C3PO/STAR WARS: Excuse me, sir.
DAVID POGUE: And, thanks to movies, creating walking machines seems easy, too. Just look at C3PO from Star Wars…
C3PO/STAR WARS: C3PO: Oh! Nice to see a familiar face…
OTHER BOT: It Chuta.
C3PO/STAR WARS: C3PO: How rude!
DAVID POGUE: …or its walkers. You'd think the problem's been solved, but in real life, it's hard. One of the best-known early attempts at a walking machine is General Electric's walking truck, from the '60s. It even tackled uneven terrain, but it took a human operator to decide where to place each foot, one at a time, an exhausting task.
By the '70s, computer control automated the walking motion in a series of crawlers, built around the world, though they werestill driven by human operators. These kept a tripod of legs on the ground, maintaining stability at all times, a system called "static balance." They moved slowly, like a walking table.
But in the 1980s, a very different approach gained ground.
I've traveled to Massachusetts, to visit a company that builds robots based on that work. The company's founder, Marc Raibert, has been building walking robots for over 30 years. Early on, he steered away from the static balance of walking tables.
To help me understand how he views animal locomotion, he invites me to take a ride on a pogo stick. It's tricky, because, like all standing humans, I am top-heavy; in technical terms: an inverted pendulum.
MARC RAIBERT (Boston Dynamics): Here is a normal pendulum, right? If you swing it…
DAVID POGUE: The weight is at the bottom. Yeah.
MARC RAIBERT: But if you put the weight at the top, what happens? If you don't do anything, it tips over, but if you move the point of support, you can keep it balanced.
DAVID POGUE: If you're top-heavy, staying balanced requires keeping your base of support under your center of gravity. That's what Marc is doing by shifting the bottom of the broom as it tips; that's what I'm doing by moving around the pogo stick, and that's what all of us do, all the time, when we're upright.
In fact, the human brain receives constant updates to maintain the body's balance: from the inner ear, where a series of fluid-filled canals send signals about the position and motion of the head; from the eyes, which send signals about the body's position relative to other objects; from internal sensors that tell us about the position of body parts relative to each other; and from external pressure sensors in the hands and feet, that send signals about the source of support, for example, if you're on uneven ground. All of this information feeds into our cerebellum, which keeps our top-heavy body from tipping over, even when we're just standing around.
Without it, you would topple over.
To Marc, we are less like a static table and more like a pogo stick. To focus on the problem, he built a robot that had only one springy leg. It constantly calculated where its weight needed to shift to stay upright, very pogo-stick like.
Even when he added more legs, he kept the bounce in their step, and an active sense of balance.
For the last few years, Marc has been applying what he's learned to solve a problem for the U.S. military. On rough terrain, wheeled vehicles aren't much use. And soldiers often haul everything on their backs, leading to injuries and exhaustion. Marc invites me to see Boston Dynamics' solution, out at a nearby park.
Meet LS3, also known as AlphaDog. It's designed specifically for rough terrain, anywhere a soldier might go on foot, and it carries 400 pounds of gear, along with enough fuel for a 20-mile mission.
MARC RAIBERT: So, Dave, in this mode, the robot is following the leader. He's got a backpack on and has some reflective stripes on it, and the vision system focuses on that and looks at them, and then it records what path he takes through the terrain.
DAVID POGUE: Is it modeled after a particular animal, an ox or a horse or…?
MARC RAIBERT: You know, not really. We take inspiration from how animals are designed and how they're implemented, but then we have to use human engineering tools, in the end, and human materials, so sometimes it stays like the animals, sometimes it departs.
DAVID POGUE: I ask Marc for a tour of LS3, of course, after it's been shut off.
MARC RAIBERT: So this is the leg, and it's got a muscle here, or the actuator, which causes it to move. This muscle moves the knee joint. The computer is really the equivalent of a laptop-style computer. So, you know, all the balancing is done in that computer. All the speed control, all the turning is done in that computer.
There is a laser range-finder here that provides 3D-depth information. There is a set of cameras here that are used to track a human leader. There's other cameras under here that look right in front of the robot and provide information about the shape of the terrain,…
DAVID POGUE: Wow.
MARC RAIBERT: …so that the feet can pick the best places to step.
The legs themselves can feel the forces that are exerted at all the actuators.
DAVID POGUE: Does it ever slip? What if it steps on an oily leaf or something?
MARC RAIBERT: It slips, and frequently it corrects for those slips. So, the goal is to make it so that the feet can slip and the control system recognizes that it's slipping and compensates by using the other legs.
DAVID POGUE: Lots of cool tech on LS3, but my favorite feature? Voice control!
Let's see. Power on, engine off, sit, get up and get me a beer. That's a good one. I like that.
LS3, get up.
LS3, follow tight.
What a good boy.
You can do it. Come on, come on!
LS3, sit. LS3, power off. I think you got something here.
In a final test of LS3, Marc has it "follow the leader" up a steep incline. Here, you really see it actively balancing, while in motion, just like me on the pogo stick, instead of moving from one stable position to another like a walking table.
MARC RAIBERT: And the idea that you could have it passively stabilized like a table, you know, that doesn't really work with a moving robot. There is too much energy in the motion of the body. And I believe that the only way to make these things work is to really commit to the active balance.
DAVID POGUE: LS3 isn't really built for speed. It trots at about five miles an hour.
But what would it take to make it go faster? This is the Cheetah. Just like the real deal, its back flexes with each step, increasing the stride of its gallop. Right now, it is the fastest robot with legs in the world.
But start looking over your shoulder for the next generation: WildCat. It's designed to be untethered.
Four-legged robots have their uses, but events like the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster have renewed interest in the human form. Radiation kept people at bay, away from all available rescue equipment, from cars, to power tools, to shut-off valves. But imagine if there'd been an easily controlled humanoid robot to operate them?
Robotics engineers have been working on that for years. In 2009, Boston Dynamics introduced PETMAN, a robot that balanced itself, walked and even did some calisthenics.
Over the last few years, PETMAN has evolved into Atlas, which has even more mobility. Just like LS3, it actively balances itself all the time. And in this impressive demo, all by itself, it uses its arms to work its way past a hole in the floor.
Today, they're tweaking its sense of balance on one foot.
ROBERT PLAYTER (Boston Dynamics): Looking at what test to do here, we studied gymnasts. And when they are just about to fall off, you'll notice that they throw their arms and their legs around very violently. And so, we're trying to understand what techniques they're using, to build a robot that can really handle rough terrain.
DAVID POGUE: They've been doing this test for only a week. First, the robot goes up onto one foot. Then they hit it with a 20-pound medicine ball.
ROBERT PLAYTER: So, if you notice there, it's swinging its arms and legs all around, in kind of a clockwise fashion, and that momentum helps move the center of mass back over the feet, not dissimilar to a way the gymnasts do it.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, ho, ho.
Let me at it!
Now, let's see some human dynamic balancing.
ROB PLAYTER: The robot's blind. It doesn't know the ball is coming.
DAVID POGUE: Oh.
ROBERT PLAYTER: So, we don't want you to know the ball is coming either. So, we've got a little blinder there for you, so you don't see the ball coming.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, great. So, I don't know when the ball is coming.
ROB PLAYTER: That's right. Use whatever technique you think you need to stay upright.
DAVID POGUE: I have a feeling, if your stinking hunk of silicone and hydraulics can do it, I can, of course, do it, too.
ROB PLAYTER: That's right.
DAVID POGUE: Side by side, it's hard to say who does it better. The Atlas seems more stable, but I have a few other tricks up my sleeve.
MARC RAIBERT: Very good.
DAVID POGUE: I admire your robot, sir.
ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, I admire you wearing those glasses on public television.
DAVID POGUE: We'll be seeing more of this guy. Atlas is the hardware used by seven software-development teams in an international rescue-robot competition.
But a single, sophisticated and expensive robot like Atlas is just one strategy. What about a less expensive and less complex machine, but more of them?
That's the idea behind Harvard University's RoboBee. It would take 30 of these to equal the weight of a penny.
What happens when you move beyond having just one robot and, instead, have a swarm? In the future, swarms of robots operating as a team might build our skyscrapers or map uncharted areas or scout out victims in disasters, as robotic search and rescue teams.
But in order to do any of that, engineers must solve a problem nature solved eons ago: "How do you get a group of individuals to work together as one?"
In nature, swarms often behave as if they have a collective intelligence. Whether it is fish schooling in the sea, or birds flying in a flock, the members act in unison, without anyone, apparently, in charge.
Some of the achievements built out of this swarm intelligence are awe-inspiring, like this murmuration by thousands of starlings, or these complicated towers built several feet high by blind termites.
So what can we learn from behavior in nature about creating robotic swarms?
Vijay Kumar and his students at University of Pennsylvania have been wrestling with the problem. They use a fleet of hand-sized quadrotor robots, which they've learned to manipulate with impressive control. They can play the theme from James Bond or put on a lightshow. In both performances, the quadrotors are individually controlled by a central computer.
But they've also built some computing power into individual robots, so they can think for themselves, like figuring out how and when to fly through a tossed hoop.
Now, Vijay is taking the next step, developing software that will allow the bots to work together as a swarm, a team that can do more than any single flyer can.
One flying bot, pretty cool; eight flying bots? It gets a little "swarm" in here.
VIJAY KUMAR (University of Pennsylvania): So what you see here is these robots are commanded to rise into a swarm. They're asked to form patterns, three-dimensional patterns, and then the robots figure out what point in the pattern to step into and how to coordinate with their neighbors.
DAVID POGUE: Oh, so the master computer doesn't say, "You be in the corner." It's just saying, "Be a rectangle," "Be a circle," but they have to decide how to execute that?
VIJAY KUMAR: Right.
DAVID POGUE: Well, a central computer could control each of the eight robots individually, telling them where to go, but Vijay wants a system that scales up, and with more robots, no computer could keep up.
So, instead, he's taken inspiration from swarms in nature, and developed three guiding principles.
First, as much as possible, just as in nature, each robot thinks for itself. Second, each robot acts primarily on local information it gathers, the way a bird in a flying flock probably pays attention only to its immediate neighbors to know where to go. Finally, no one robot is in charge. They're all interchangeable, so that if one breaks down, the group continues.
To test out those principles, Vijay turns his fleet over to me and lets me experiment.
The flyers know they're supposed to make a circle. As I add them, one at time, you can see it take shape. Or, I can randomly pluck one out of the air—proving none is essential—and put it back somewhere else. Its neighbors adapt.
Of all the possible applications, Vijay sees a big future for swarms in search and rescue. And he shows me how it would work.
VIJAY KUMAR: So, imagine you have a victim, you can imagine robots wandering around looking for, maybe, a cell phone signal that might tell you where the victim is.
DAVID POGUE: Find that, robot drones!
BENJAMIN CHARROW (University of Pennsylvania): I'm telling these bots to move.
DAVID POGUE: The numbers of the bots?
BENJAMIN CHARROW: The numbers of the bots. They're all moving around.
DAVID POGUE: All right, there they go. They've chosen independent routes.
In this demonstration, run by one of Vijay's grad students, the robots roam the floor, measuring the strength of a signal transmitted by our lost victim's cellphone. They share their readings, creating a map.
In effect, the transmitter is saying, "Warmer, warmer."
BENJAMIN CHARROW: Cooler, cooler. But the robots know not to trust any one sensor reading, too much.
DAVID POGUE: The swarm of robots cut the overall search time, by gathering information faster than a single robot could, leading to the rescue of our lost little guy.
VIJAY KUMAR: Well, right now it's a lab study. But this sort of illustrates one of the directions in which we want to go, which is you take very simple robots with very simple sensors, so they're inexpensive, you put them together, and suddenly you have the benefits of these robots collaborating to do things that they individually cannot do. And that illustrates what swarm technology can really do for you.
DAVID POGUE: We've seen how nature has inspired the way robots look, how they move and even how they act in concert in swarms, but living things have also inspired engineers on a more fundamental level, the very stuff we make things out of, our materials.
Many of our modern materials have taken their cues from the natural world, especially plastics. Silk, the product of worms, inspired nylon, and the search for a substitute for rubber led to the invention of polystyrene, the stuff we often call STYROFOAM™.
But natural materials also hold hidden secrets, tiny structures, invisible to the naked eye, that can give them near magical properties, properties we can mimic.
For example, the tips of microscopic hairs on the feet of wall-climbing geckos have led to the creation of material for wall-climbing robots.
So the hunt is on. What other secrets might living materials reveal?
I've travelled to Harvard University to meet materials scientist Joanna Aizenberg. She's taking me to see a plant with tiny structures on its surface that play a slick trick, one we might use for new materials in sticky situations.
Whoa, creepy. Little Shop of Horrors. What is this plant?
JOANNA AIZENBERG (Harvard University): This is a Pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant. It eats stuff, eats insects.
DAVID POGUE: It's called the Pitcher plant for its pitcher-shaped leaves, though when it comes to ants and other insects, these Pitchers throw a mean curve. In dry weather, ants can easily walk on the lips of the Pitchers, using their sticky, oily feet. But in wet conditions, the ants and their oily feet get a Little Shop of Horrors surprise.
Here's how the trick works. On a dry day, the surface of the Pitcher plant looks like this, no problem for the ants. But add water and it sticks to the bumpy surface, creating a slippery wet film, a Slip 'N Slide® for ants.
JOANNA AIZENBERG: All these insects just slide into digestive juices inside the organism.
DAVID POGUE: They fall in?
JOANNA AIZENBERG: They're hydroplaning inside this plant.
DAVID POGUE: Cool.
To Joanna, the Pitcher plant's "slippery-when-wet" strategy seemed a promising start for developing new non-stick materials, but only a start.
JOANNA AIZENBERG: It evolved this structure to capture prey. It didn't evolve this structure to create these slippery materials on metals, on plastics, on glass. So this is where material scientists come in. Let's design something similar.
DAVID POGUE: Taking the Pitcher plant as inspiration, Joanna has developed a new non-stick surface treatment, a new way to keep stuff clean. She calls it "Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surfaces," or SLIPS.
We start with a big piece of aluminum. The right is untreated, the left has SLIPS.
So, we're going to try putting some stuff on each half, and we'll see what sticks.
JOANNA AIZENBERG: And what slips.
DAVID POGUE: Well done.
First step: chocolate sauce. Haven't I seen this on late night TV?
I hate getting chocolate on my aluminum.
PHIL: And on SLIPS.
DAVID POGUE: Look at that, it beads right off. Now how much would you pay?
Cleaning off the chocolate with water works, but not as easily as SLIPS.
By gosh, Phil, you didn't even need that water. It rolled right off.
But let's raise the stakes. Next up, motor oil.
Oh, Phil, you're ruining this perfectly good sheet of aluminum. That'll never come off.
What? It rolls right off!
JOANNA AIZENBERG: While this one leaves a stain that is not going to be removed, even with washing. It's actually getting even dirtier.
DAVID POGUE: And on the SLIPS side, no contest.
Well, I can't imagine anything much worse than motor oil.
If we had a studio audience, they'd be going, "Ugh!"
PHIL: And on SLIPS.
DAVID POGUE: Come on! Even tar rolls off like off a duck's back.
Seriously, it's an amazing display of "unstickiness," and it works in a totally different way than the current king of unsticky, Teflon®.
Teflon is a plastic polymer, a long chain of repeating molecules. It has a carbon backbone, with fluorine atoms tightly bonded to it on the outside. The fluorine acts as a shield, preventing the normally reactive carbon from bonding with anything else, the secret of Teflon's unstickiness.
But SLIPS works in a totally different way: on the Pitcher plant principle. First, Joanna adds a porous material, less than a hundredth of a centimeter thick, to the stuff she wants to protect, in some cases, just by spraying it on. Then she adds a liquid, often an oil, that seeps in. The layer and the liquid are formulated to attract each other, keeping the liquid in place.
Just like the water on the lip of the Pitcher plant, the liquid creates a smooth non-stick surface on top.
Joanna believes there are lots of applications. Graffiti a problem? Not on the sign that's been treated with SLIPS. SLIPS helps prevent ice buildup, by repelling water before it has time to freeze. And if ice forms, SLIPS defrosts more quickly, which may lead to applications in refrigeration and the deicing of planes. It's a clever use of biology as inspiration.
JOANNA AIZENBERG: Bio-inspired is more taking some clever solution and maybe reformulating it in a different way, using something different that nature doesn't use, but the design is preserved.
DAVID POGUE: So SLIPS would bear the label, "Based on an idea by nature."
JOANNA AIZENBERG: That's right, yeah.
DAVID POGUE: And, of course, the research continues.
Rinse. SLIPS. It's absolutely repellent.
SLIPS cleverly adapts one of nature's innovations, but, increasingly, scientists have been asking a new question: "Can we adapt, not only the stuff nature makes, but also the way nature makes stuff?"
Today's manufacturing consumes vast amounts of natural resources, while creating mountains of waste, some of which is toxic. Take paper. To make a ton of it, you start with almost twice as much wood and generate thousands of pounds of waste.
The leather industry is even worse. A ton of finished leather requires over five tons of the raw stuff.
Compare that to the natural growth of plants and animals. They take what they need to build their bodies—no blasting furnaces, no acid baths, no pounding machinery—and waste that recycles easily. What if we could recruit nature to grow the stuff we need for our technology? What if we could grow a car or a computer or a cell phone? Can we make our manufacturing more like nature's?
M.I.T. professor Angela Belcher, may have taken the first step toward realizing that dream.
ANGELA BELCHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Well, I'm really interested in how nature makes materials, how organisms in the ocean have evolved to use just the elements of their environment to make really exquisite materials, like this abalone shell here.
DAVID POGUE: Angela first took inspiration from the abilities of the humble abalone, whose intricately structured shell is made in part out of calcium. Over the course of its life, the abalone takes calcium atoms from the ocean and slowly assembles them into its strong shell, a talent its ancestors likely developed several hundred million years ago, which made Angela ask a question: "If life could learn to build a shell with calcium, could it learn to build stuff using other elements, like the ones we use for our technology?"
It didn't seem likely. If you look at the Periodic Table, life primarily uses only six elements, along with a smattering of others.
On the other hand, our technologies, our computers, our electronics, rely heavily on elements that nature largely ignores. Angela wondered. Could she coax organisms into building stuff out of our high-tech elements, let's say a battery?
Batteries have three components: a negatively charged electrode, a positively charged electrode and a separator, called an electrolyte.
To test her idea, Angela decided to make a negative electrode by growing it.
But what creature would do the growing?
She sends me down to the water, promising to show me the type of organism she recruited.
I got, oh. This better be worth it.
I'm sorry, I did not actually manage to get any sea organisms in there.
ANGELA BELCHER: You did. There's actually tens of millions of viruses in the sample.
DAVID POGUE: Viruses? Is this one of those medical waste beaches?
ANGELA BELCHER: No. These are viruses that are a natural part of the environment, a really important part of the ecosystem of the ocean.
DAVID POGUE: It turns out, viruses are actually the most abundant organisms in the ocean. A teaspoon alone holds over 10-million of them. Viruses come in all kinds of shapes, but in some ways they are all the same. They're each a little bit of genetic material wrapped in a protective coating.
Scientists have learned how to change the genetic material inside some viruses, altering their behavior, making some strains into popular and safe lab tools, for research.
For her work, Angela chose one of those safe lab viruses, which happens to be long and thin, a little like a pencil. This virus reproduces by latching onto a bacterium, injecting its D.N.A., and forcing the bacterium to produce millions of copies of the pencil-shaped virus.
I have a model with me. This is what a virus looks like?
ANGELA BELCHER: Yeah, exactly like that. So I have a model here.
DAVID POGUE: A much better one, yeah?
So this is designed to stab the bacteria?
ANGELA BELCHER: That's exactly right. Like the pencils stab…
DAVID POGUE: But you're going to teach it a new trick?
ANGELA BELCHER: Right. I'm going to teach it, instead of to bind the bacteria, to grow in electronic material.
DAVID POGUE: Come on. That's like saying, "Well this is where I'm going to teach the rabbit to do microsurgery."
The virus normally sticks to the outside of the bacterium it targets, but what Angela wanted was for the virus to bond with little bits of metal. And yes, that is weird.
ANGELA BELCHER: So imagine these are tiny bits of metal that's going to be part of a battery electrode. Now, this virus has not been repurposed yet, so it has no ability to bind this material, so if there's no reason that would bind these small pieces of metal…
DAVID POGUE: The stickiness her virus has for a material is determined by the virus's outer coat, which in turn, is built by its D.N.A. So, Angela had to change the D.N.A., rearranging its A, C, G and T building blocks, to change the outer coat, so metal would stick to it.
And you have the ability to modify, mutate their D.N.A.?
ANGELA BELCHER: That's right. We're going to go in, and we're going to add D.N.A. sequences to them, but we're going to do it at random D.N.A. sequences. So, it's like rolling a bunch of dice.
DAVID POGUE: Angela used a process called "directed evolution." She randomly mixed the A, C, G and T building blocks of D.N.A. and inserted the bits into the virus, creating billions of variations.
Then, she tested them to see which viruses bonded to electrode material, until she found the one that worked best.
ANGELA BELCHER: What you get is a virus that's completely coated in that metal that makes up this battery electrode material.
DAVID POGUE: Just like an abalone assembles calcium into a shell, her virus could now assemble metal into a tiny electrode.
By packing together millions of the metal-coated viruses, Angela made a negative electrode large enough for a battery. She repeated the process to create a virus that assembled the positive electrode. Adding an off-the-shelf electrolyte, she completed her virus battery.
The virus batteries can take many shapes. These are coin batteries used in electronics. And Angela has created about a hundred other specialized viruses that make other products, including solar cells with improved performance, thanks to the virus inside, and specialized materials that enable chemical reactions, catalysts, that create fuels.
Is this all about making better batteries and solar cells, then, or is this something bigger?
ANGELA BELCHER: Well, I think it's something bigger. It's a new way of manufacturing materials. Use biology to come up with new ways of manufacturing materials that have improved performance.
DAVID POGUE: So let's compare the old way versus the new way. Old way: high temperature, piles of waste and lots of toxic byproducts; new way: room temperature, little wasted material and few toxic byproducts, with a goal of none.
As it emerges from the lab, Angela Belcher's work holds the promise of cleaner manufacturing and a new partnership between our industrial ambitions and the best manufacturer on the planet: nature itself.
Form, movement, behavior, materials, manufacturing, all ways nature has led us to seek out new solutions to our technological problems, in the amazing abilities of plants, animals and even viruses.
But while biology may already hold the answers to tomorrow's challenges, in the hard-won lessons of evolution, it still takes the creativity and hard work of engineers and scientists to recognize them, combining the best of both worlds. That's Making Stuff Wilder.
- David Pogue
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- Image credit: (David Pogue)
- Courtesy David Pogue
- Joanna Aizenberg, Angela Belcher, Benjamin Charrow, Julia Herr, Vijay Kumar, Atsuko Negishi, Robert Playter, Marc Raibert