Composite structures mimic seashells

Material scientists at ETH-Zürich are working on composite materials that mimic the structure of seashells. Complex structures produced using tiny magnetic particles guide the composites' stiffer elements into place. The technique will enable more durable coatings as well as stronger and lighter materials.

Researchers discovered that they could enable a magnetic response in these nonmagnetic materials by attaching a small amounts of magnetic nano particles to the surface of the elements, just 1/1000th the diameter of a human hair.

This method only works for stiff elements of a defined size in the micrometer range, which happens to overlap with the sizes of key interest in the composite industry.

Using stiffer elements on this scale provides orientation control using magnetic fields that are only 20 times that of the Earth. For comparison, creditcard stripes emit magnetic fields approaching 2,000 times that of the Earth's field.

The team has already demonstrated that the technique can be used to produce an entire family of new composite structures, which exhibit programmable properties in any desired direction.

The ETH team is currently working with commercial companies to put this technique into industrial use for lighter, cheaper, and stronger composite materials for industry.

Justin Cunningham

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