Naturally Inspired

in BME Spotlight Faculty, BME Spotlight-Research, ENG Spotlight Faculty, ENG Spotlight-Research, MSE Spotlight Faculty, MSE Spotlight Research, NEWS

Zhang’s Research Takes a Page from Biology to Build Materials

By Sara Elizabeth Cody

The porous, three-dimensional structure of the diatom frustrules can be oriented on a large scale and used as a potential alternative for creating micro- and nanopattern surfaces, which have many practical applications in research.
The porous, three-dimensional structure of the diatom frustrules can be oriented on a large scale and used as a potential alternative for creating micro- and nanopattern surfaces, which have many practical applications in research.

At first glance, diatoms seem to have little to do with engineering. However, to Professor Xin Zhang, (ME, MSE), they are the central focus of a recently published study coming from her Laboratory for Microsystems Technology.

“By drawing inspiration from different fields of science, we come up with unconventional approaches to study the materials, which allows us to learn more about them,” says Zhang. “In this case, we learn from nature to build materials of our own.”

The study, published as the cover story in Extreme Mechanics Letters, used the exoskeletons of diatoms called frustules to develop a stencil that can be easily produced and replicated in a certain range of sizes for use in research protocols. The porous, bowl-shaped, three-dimensional exoskeletons, made naturally of pure silica, lent themselves well to stencil-making, and served as a unique fabrication method.

“The ability to uniformly orient the frustules will be beneficial for enhancing their application to practical technologies, from sensors to solar cells,” says Aobo Li (ME), a graduate student who worked on the study. “We were able to figure out how to orient them uniformly on a large scale, which allowed us to make micro- and nanostencils.”

Current methods of creating nanopattern surfaces presented a number of problems for researchers—they can be costly, time-consuming, or it can be hard to achieve scalability or control over the size of the stencil. Zhang’s novel approach seeks to address these limitations by using the bio-structures of the diatoms as a potential alternative for fabricating micro- and nanopatterns.

“You can make chips, you can make computers but if you humbly turn to nature, you see so many unique micro- and nanostructures that already exist,” says Zhang. “You can be inspired by these beautiful, available structures and can even build engineering components directly out of them. By looking to diatoms, we are trying to understand nature and leverage these biological components for our specific engineering purposes.”