Machine Design

Nature's nanocrystals hold lessons for researchers

Seashells and diatoms pull calcium and silicate ions from cool ocean water to build hard crystalline tissues that protect them.

Researchers have made nanostructures that are strikingly similar to those in nature. For example, (a) is an acre from red abalone, (b) includes synthetic ZnO crystals, and (c) is a diatom. Images (d) to (h) are man-made silica crystals.

Engineers at Sandia National Lab are studying these structures to uncover ways to build similar structures using low-temperature, environmentally benign methods. Currently, they are using low temperatures and chemical concentrations in an aqueous environment rather than the high temperatures, high concentrations, and organic solvent method more widely used to build nanocrystals. So far, the team has been able to control where and how crystals form.

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