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Singapore: Sustainable Smart Materials

Image credit: sutd.edu.sg
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Assoc Prof Javier Fernandez and colleagues at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) explored the usage of chitinous polymers as a sustainable material for engineering applications. The research team discovered how chitinous materials can adapt and change at the molecular level in response to environmental changes.

He has demonstrated that even after being extracted from natural sources, chitinous polymers retain their innate ability to link various forces, molecular organisation, and water content to generate mechanical movement and electricity without the need for an external power source or control system. Assoc Prof Javier stressed the unique properties that distinguish chitinous polymers as smart materials that are both biocompatible and energy-efficient.

Researchers’ ability to run simulations and explore the molecular properties of chitin is made possible in large part by digital technology. Using computational tools and simulations, researchers can investigate the material’s behaviour under various conditions and foresee its potential applications.

Likewise, digital technology aids in the processing and interpretation of massive amounts of data generated by experiments and simulations. This data analysis aids in identifying trends, comprehending chitin’s properties, and determining whether it is suitable for a given application.

Chitin, the second most abundant organic polymer in nature after cellulose, may be found in all ecosystems. The same SUTD research team has demonstrated that it can be easily and sustainably derived from a variety of species, including urban rubbish.

The researchers extracted chitinous polymers from discarded prawn shells to create films 130.5 micrometres thick for the current study. They investigated changes in molecular organisation, water content, and mechanical properties caused by external stressors on these chitinous sheets. Stretching the chitinous films, similar to opening butterfly wings, changed the crystalline structure; the molecules became more densely packed, and the water content decreased.

The chitinous films, which had properties like conventional plastics at first, were transformed into a plastic-like substance for use in high-end and specialised engineering. Unlike synthetic polymers, which are inert, the reorganised chitinous films may autonomously relax and contract in response to environmental changes, similar to how some insects can adapt their shell to fit diverse environments. Because of this feature, chitinous films can raise objects weighing more than 4.5 kilogrammes vertically.

The research team assembled the biocompatible films into a mechanical hand to demonstrate their engineering utility. By modulating the intermolecular water of the films through environmental changes and metabolic activities, the researchers generated enough force for the hand to demonstrate a gripping motion.

The amazing gripping force was equal to 18 kilogrammes, which is more than half of the average grab strength of an adult. The ability of chitinous films to create such force biochemically opens the door to their seamless integration into biological systems and application in biomedical applications such as artificial muscles and medical implants.

In another experiment, researchers demonstrated how to harness environmental energy and convert it into power by observing how the material responded to changes in humidity. By attaching the films to a piezoelectric material, the mechanical motion of the films in response to variations in humidity was converted into electrical currents suitable for small electronics.

Assoc Prof Javier has proof-of-concept study highlights the potential use of chitin in engineering and biological applications, demonstrating how both the intrinsic mechanical properties and embedding capabilities of chitin may be replicated. According to him, the transition to a more sustainable paradigm—which he refers to as the “biomaterial age”—requires the utilisation of materials such as chitin.

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