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Secrets of the sea yield stronger artificial bone

The next generation of artificial bone may rely on a few secrets from the sea. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have harnessed the way seawater freezes to develop a porous, scaffolding-like material that is four times stronger than material currently used in synthetic bone.

Although still in the investigational stages, variations of this substance could also be used in a myriad of applications in which strength and lightness are imperative, such as dental implants, airplane manufacturing and computer hardware.

As reported in the January 27, 2006 edition of the journal Science, the Berkeley Lab scientists developed a composite that mirrors the intricate structure of nacre, which is a finely layered substance found in some mollusk shells, such as oysters and abalone. Scientists have long sought to duplicate nacre's strength and lightness in ceramic materials, but nacre's architecture varies at several length scales, from micrometers to nanometers. Replicating all of these scales -- each of which contributes to the overall performance of nacre -- in a synthetic substance is extremely difficult. Then, the Berkeley Lab researchers thought of sea ice.

"We allow nature to guide the process. Seawater can freeze like a layered material, so why not use this property to cast ceramics that mimic nacre," says Antoni Tomsia of Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division, who developed the composite with fellow Materials Sciences Division researchers Sylvain Deville, Eduardo Saiz, and Ravi Nalla.

For the past several years, Tomsia and colleagues have worked to fabricate artificial bone that is more bone than artificial, meaning it adapts to changing physiological conditions and meshes with surrounding tissue over time. In contrast, today's artificial joints are made from metal alloys and ceramics that often trigger inflammation and immune responses, or may require corrective surgery
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Source:DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


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