Nothing shrimpy about this crustacean

Nothing shrimpy about this crustacean

The peacock mantis shrimp's biology may actually lead to better body armor for soldiers and law enforcement.

The peacock mantis shrimp may be one of the most amazing creatures on the planet. Featured in a recent article in The LA Times, the mantis shrimp has two large claws that are capable of delivering 500 Newtons of force. This is sufficient to punch through the shells of the snails and crabs that it eats; even enough to crush aquarium glass, and accelerates faster than a speeding bullet (literally). Of course, there is one interesting question to the puzzle of this small creature (which is, coincidentally, neither a shrimp nor a mantis).

One of the physical impossibilities of a human possessing super human strength is that our physiology would not stand up to the forces created by that strength. Our muscles would tear, our bones would break. The peacock mantis shrimp, however, has developed a structure for its claws that can withstand the tremendous forces. The structure actually makes its claws tougher than any synthetic material that we’ve made.

Researchers studying the animal have found that the exoskeleton of the creature is actually made oup of several structures that each guard against the catastrophic failures of the others. There are three integrated areas of the structure, “each contain different mineral compositions and capabilities.” The impact zone of the claw is made of hydroxyapatite, which is found in vertebrates bones and teeth. However, it’s very thin ( 50 – 70 nanometers) which would normally be very brittle. However, two other composite structures of chitosan, a softer spongy material, absorb impact, prevent cracks from spreading, and disperse force.

Designers believe they could use this design to create body armor that would be significantly lighter and stronger than present synthetic varieties such as Kevlar. In addition, the use of a kind of hybrid armor, one that makes use of traditional ceramics as well as organic materials (such as the chitosan), may improve upon the design as well.

On a related note, this represents a further shift from pursuing primary synthetics in the solving of our problems to adapting natural design. Researchers are attempting to use spider silk, which is lighter, stronger, and more elastic than any synthetic alternative, to be economically viable. Spider silk may be useful in applications as varied as body armor to prosthetic limbs and construction materials. In addition, scientists have looked at the structures and behaviors of plants to make engineering and architecture more energy efficient and stable in residential and commercial buildings.

We seem to have moved beyond a kind of human-centered pretense for advancing technology, and have returned to looking at nature for our designs. Afterall, we’ve only been at it a few thousand years. Nature’s been working on it for billions.