February 6, 2013

The Little Lizard That Could

Geckskin Makes CNN’s Year-End Innovation List
The Geckskin team (from left) Al Crosby, Dan King, Michael Bartlett and Duncan Irschick.

CNN has named Geckskin™, the super-strong adhesive developed by an interdisciplinary team of a functional morphologist, a polymer scientist, and a Ph.D. student in engineering, one of the top five science breakthroughs of 2012.

Created by Professor of Polymer Science and Engineering Alfred Crosby, Professor of Biology Duncan Irschick, and doctoral candidate Michael Bartlett, Geckskin exhibits such an adherent strength that a strip the size of an index card can support up to 700 pounds.

CNN focused on the Geckskin project as a herald of biomimetic design: innovation that takes its inspiration from structures in nature. It featured Geckskin as one of several innovations with great potential to have an impact on the business world, alongside gene therapy, a one-carbon-atom sheet that could eventually replace rare-earth metals, “augmented reality” smart phone applications, and re-visioned automobile drivetrains.

Geckskin, the development of which was funded partially by the U.S. Defense Research Projects Agency is an example of a key UMass priority: sponsored research that leads to discoveries that will then have an application in the world outside of the academy.

The researchers worked together to crack the code of the gecko paw, which can support a great weight proportional to the size of surface contact and peel off and reattach without leaving residue. The secret of the strength of a gecko hold lies in the lizard’s tendons, which connect directly to its skin. The team created a synthetic tendon in the Geckskin polymer, and then engineered the fabric to drape over and into miniscule irregularities on surfaces.

Geckskin will have prosaic uses such as adhering objects to walls and ceilings, but also opens up entirely new possibilities for human use, such as serving as an alternative to ladders in rescue operations.

“Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways,” says Irschick.