In their quest to develop an underwater glue, scientists have designed a new synthetic material that can fuse two surfaces underwater.
The synthetic material designed by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara combines the key functionalities of interfacial mussel foot proteins, creating a single, low-molecular-weight, one-component adhesive.
Inspired by mussels’ ability to cling to surfaces despite the constant pounding of waves and wind, the scientists studied the combination of proteins mussels secrete in the form of byssus threads that extend from their feet and anchor them to rocks, pilings or any other surface in their vicinity.
While wet adhesion is an adaptation that is widespread among inhabitants of the intertidal zone, mussels in particular lend themselves to the kind of fundamental research necessary to understand how it is possible to stick to something wet or submerged.
“We have successfully mimicked the biological adhesive delivery mechanism in water with an unprecedented level of underwater adhesion,” Kollbe Ahn, research faculty member at the UC, Santa Barbara.
An adhesive primer that can overcome the barrier of water and contaminant “biofilm” layers to adhere to virtually any mineral or metal oxide surface has a variety of applications, from basic repair of materials regularly exposed to salty water, to biomedical and dental uses, as well as nanofabrication.
“More importantly, this less than 2 nanometre-thin layer can be used not only at the nano-length scale, but also in the macro-length scale to boost the performance of current bulk adhesives,” Ahn added.
The researchers developed a simple material that demonstrates a record underwater adhesion – up to 10 times the effectiveness previously demonstrated in other such materials.
Key to this technology is the synthesis of a material that combines the key functional molecular groups of several residues found in the biological adhesion proteins.
In mussel feet, the amino acid L-Dopa (also used in humans as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease) contains hydrogen-bonding chemical groups called catechols.
These are found in especially high quantities at the interface between the plaques at the ends of the byssus threads the mussels secrete, and the often wet and submerged surfaces to which they adhere.
By mimicking the characteristics of mussel foot proteins that are particularly rich in this amino acid, the scientists designed a molecule that can prime and fuse two surfaces underwater.
“This finding opens the door to a new generation of nanofabrications,” Ahn said.
The findings were published in the Journal Nature Communications.
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