for National Geographic News
Animals' natural defenses are providing inspiration for researchers developing the next generation of lighter, tougher body armor.
Benjamin Bruet, a graduate student in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is part of a team funded by the U.S. military to create new materials to protect soldiers in the field.
Bruet and his colleagues have tested horns, antlers, fish scales, and other natural materials to study how animals shield themselves in the wild.
These insights could be used to design new, better materials for equipment such as helmets and bulletproof vests.
"Real soldiers will start to benefit from our research as early as the coming years," Bruet said in an email interview.
"And within ten years, drastic improvements will have already been implemented that will revolutionize the battle suit."
Mother of Pearl
The team has become particularly interested in the soft-bodied snail Trochus niloticus and the inner layer of the shell that protects it.
The inside of the snail's shell is made of nacre, also known as mother of pearl.
Nacre is composed of about 95 percent calcium carbonate, a relatively weak ceramic. The other 5 percent is a soft, pliable material called biopolymer.
Bruet calls biopolymer "organic glue."
"At the microscale, nacre looks like a brick-and-mortar type of material with tiny tablets about 10 microns (a hundred-thousandth of a meter) in diameter and 1 micron (a millionth of a meter) thick," Bruet said.
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