Mother Nature inspires biomedical engineering research
Nychka, a materials engineering professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, is studying wettability—how fast a liquid (such as water or a solvent) will seep through the dust or grime on top of, and then reach and adhere to, an object’s surface—and its possible implications in biomedical and biological materials.
Nychka’s interest in the subject came while he was creating coatings for industrial uses.
He and his graduate student, Jadid Samad, noticed that some of the materials displayed funny behaviour: the water didn’t wet, or spread out on the surface of all of the materials. Nychka’s natural curiosities were piqued, which lead him and Samad to examine the wettability of leaf surfaces, which also display water-shedding abilities, and how these principles could be mimicked to engineer new coatings.
Leaves display surface modifications that affect whether they are water-spreading or repellant surfaces. Degrees of wettability are affected by the chemical nature and roughness of the surface.
“We want to understand how to explain, or even change, the wettability of a surface,” Nychka said. “Once we understand the properties that affect the wettability, we can start to apply those concepts in our own research. So far we have been pretty successful.”
Nychka decided to focus his attention on wettability as it pertains to biomedical and biological materials science, a decision that landed his paper—and a photograph he took of a water drop on a leaf—on the cover of the scientific journal, JOM.
As Nychka explains, “people are coming up with all these new materials in biomedicine, but ultimately these materials are going into the body where there are fluids, and they have to interact. We have to understand how these materials are going to behave.”
The wetting of solid surfaces by biological fluids is often necessary so that a foreign material is accepted by the body. In the same respect, applications in biomimicry and biomaterials often require interactions with liquids, so the implications of wettability can be substantial.
Interest in this area of research is spreading, and Nychka is giving an invited talk at the 34th International Conference and Exposition on Advanced Ceramics and Composites in Daytona Beach in January. His talk deals with manufacturing ceramic oxide coatings to mimic hydrophobic plant leaves.
“Now that we have these great ideas, it’s a question of can we run with this and turn it into something,” says Nychka. “Mother Nature has good solutions, and we need to adapt them to engineering materials in order to help society.”