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Better ceramics through biology.

Better ceramics through biology

Biologically produced ceramics remain superior to synthetic versions of the same materials, says Gary L. McVay, who manages materials sciences research at Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Richland, Wash. To catch up with nature, he and his colleagues are taking ceraic-making lessons from mollusks such as the nautilus, sea urchin and abalone. For 600 million years or so, these industrious creatures have transformed such inherently weak materials as calcium carbonate (chalk) into hard, shatter-resistant and intricately shaped ceramic shells.

The key to this feat of molluskan materials processing lies in the biological polymers produced in the organism's shell-manufacturing cells. Made of protein and polysaccharides, the polymers serve as nucleation sites where inorganic ions within the watery cells can settle, aggregate and grow into ceramic crystals with specific shapes and orientations. McVay's group would like to mimic this low-temperature, water-based process to grow technologically important compounds such as artificial bone and nonrusting building materials.

The researchers already have used synthetic polymers as nucleation sites and preforms for depositing needles of iron oxide, the active ingredient in magnetic storage tapes. By varying the distribution of charges on the polymer, the group can control the orientation of the essentially self-assembling crystals. McVay says he and others aim to uncover and imitate more biological ceramic-making tactics for growing additional materials, including high-temperature superconducting ceramics.
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Author:Amato, Ivan
Publication:Science News
Date:May 5, 1990
Previous Article:Striving to make almost nothing at all.
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