Integrating natural, man-made resources may lead to better materials

Inspired by the insect exoskeleton, a materials scientist and engineer at Washington University in St. Louis will study how natural and man-made materials can work together as a basis for improving Air Force technology.

Srikanth Singamaneni

Srikanth Singamaneni, associate professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, received a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to study the interface between biotic and abiotic interfaces in an effort to create advanced functional materials at a very small scale — the nanoscale. Understanding how man-made materials interact with biological materials could aid the Air Force in developing improved human-performance monitoring of airmen in a combat situation, chemical and biological sensors and human-machine interfacing.

Nature offers rich examples of highly sophisticated material systems that continue to inspire materials scientists and engineers. For example, the exoskeleton of an insect protects its body and allows the insect to interact with its environment through its senses, mostly through a combination of two simple materials: a silk-like protein and chitin, a polysaccharide similar to plastic.

Singamaneni says biological materials have been perfected over millions of years. Surprisingly, they can achieve many interesting things with a very limited palette of materials.

"Nature can put materials together in a very exciting manner, for example, polysaccharides and proteins can be put together in a lot of different ways to achieve widely tunable properties that we cannot achieve today," he says. "We are looking at how these materials are being organized at nanometer length scales and how they interact with man-made nanoscale materials so we can recreate some of these adaptive materials."

Singamaneni says the goal of the project is to understand how the protein materials interact with nanoscale materials and how that modifies the structure and function of the protein.

Singamaneni is collaborating with Rajesh Naik, PhD, of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Naik was recently appointed an affiliate research professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Applied Science at WashU., and Singameneni will be working at the Air Force Research Laboratory this summer through a faculty fellowship.

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