Sandcastle worms inspire strong, fast-acting underwater adhesive

The sandcastle worm has inspired a new form of underwater adhesive

The sandcastle worm has inspired a new form of underwater adhesive (Credit: Fred Hayes)

Science has turned its torch to many corners of the animal kingdom in the pursuit of advanced adhesives. Immoveable mussels, grippy geckos and stubborn shellfish have helped nudge these efforts along in the past, and now another critter has emerged with a few sticky secrets of its own. Researchers have replicated the adhesive secreted by sandcastle worms to form a new kind of underwater glue, a substance they say could find use in a number of applications including tissue repair and dentistry.

Found along the Californian coast, sandcastle worms are reef-building marine animals so named because they construct shelter out of grains of sand that are bound together by a strong underwater adhesive. Like mussels and other glue-producing marine life, scientists have studied the creatures in hopes of developing new, robust glues that can perform in wet environments.

Now scientists at UC Santa Barbara have produced a synthetic glue they claim replicates the strong wet-contact adhesion of the sandcastle worm. The team attributed this to the recreation of the natural adhesive's microarchitecture, which features microscopic porous structures. In testing, it observed "rapid and robust underwater contact adhesion" to surfaces including plastics, glass, metals and biological materials, and claim it exhibited high resistance to cracking.

"Porous structures, or cellular structures, are ubiquitous in nature, such as in cork, bones and coral, and they are found to increase fracture energy of these materials," says lead author of the study Qiang Zhao. "Here in the context of wet adhesion, we found that the porosity was reminiscent of the porous structures of sandcastle worm cement, and significantly improved wet adhesion."

The researchers also emphasize that their glue may prove easier to use than other experimental underwater adhesives, which can require processing beforehand or extra pressure during application.

"The processing of this wet glue does not need pre-immersive dry curing or applied compressing pressure that are normally required in conventional studies," says Zhao.

If an advanced underwater adhesive such as this does make it to market, it could have an impact across a number of industries, ranging from marine engineering, to dental applications, to improved surgical glues and wound treatments.

The research was published in the journal Nature Materials.

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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