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Sticky material to scale new heights

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Climbing up walls like Spider-Man might not just be the stuff of comic books if a new material continues its successful development.

A team at a British aerospace and defense company have created a re-usable adhesive material that can stick to any surface, a small piece of which could easily support the weight of a small family car.

The team at BAE Systems Advanced Technology Center, led by Dr. Jeffrey Sargent and Dr. Sajad Haq, have been inspired by the gecko lizard and its ability to walk up walls and across ceilings.

Their "Synthetic Gecko" material mimics the microscopic hairs on a gecko's foot. Its potential as a reusable super-strong adhesive material could be applied across a number of areas.

"As well as the engineering potential of our product we realize there is a huge scope for its commercial and even medical application," Dr. Jeffery Sargent told CNN.

It's not the first time that material has been produced that has tried to copy geckos' climbing feats. Scientists at the University of California discovered the secrets of the lizard's seemingly gravity-defying ability in 2000.

In 2002 they synthesized a material that mimicked the millions tiny foot hairs, called setae, found on a gecko's feet.

Each of the microscopic setae on a gecko's foot has a mushroom shaped cap on the end, less than one-thousandth of a millimeter across. This ensures that the gecko's foot is in very close contact with the surface beneath.

The cumulative attractive force, called van der Waals force, of these setae allows the lizard to scurry up walls and ceilings, and even hang from polished glass surfaces.

In 2003 scientists at the University of Manchester produced a one centimeter patch of "gecko tape," but neither the University of Manchester nor University of California teams managed to produce the material in a greater quantity, unlike Haq and Sargent, who have already tested areas larger than 10 centimeters-squared.

The new adhesive has been developed in BAE's micro-engineering room facilities using light to etch three-dimensional patterns on to the material. The resulting "Synthetic Gecko" is made of layers covered with thousands of stalks with splayed tips made of a polyimide, a synthetic like Nylon.

Haq and Sargent believe that the material they are developing can and will be produced on a large scale and fulfil a myriad of uses.

"One use is rapid patch repairs on military vehicles. Being able to patch a hole without having to prepare the surface or wait for adhesives to dry would be a huge advantage. It could also eliminate the need for rivets or fasteners," Dr. Haq told CNN.

A further defense-oriented application that the team are looking at is in the area of crawler robots.

"Robot crawlers, used for example in aviation to check for flaws or defects, currently use suction to attach themselves to the wings or fuselage, but they also have hoses and other peripherals attached. 'Synthetic Gecko' would eliminate the need for this," Dr. Sargent told CNN.

More exciting are the potential commercial applications.

"A patch of the material one-meter-squared would hold the weight of a family-sized car. This might sound strong, but obviously it isn't as strong as aerospace adhesives, however even if it was scaled down it could easily hold the weight of a person," said Dr. Haq.

The obvious advantage of the material over current adhesives is that it can be used repeatedly, leaving no residue and is not sticky to touch. Only when pressure is added to the surface will it actually stick, so it's possible for a person to freely run their finger over it without getting stuck.

Like the setae on a gecko's foot, Haq and Sergant's material would only stick when the angle of the microscopic hairs are at the correct angle to the surface beneath, so a person wearing a glove covered in the adhesive material would only have to peel their hand from the surface, a little like Velcro, to become unattached.

There are other areas of research that are focusing on highly advanced and responsive materials.

"Materials that can change their properties electrically are being developed, that will be used to in the medical world to create things such as synthetic muscles," Ian Pearson, resident futurist for BT, told CNN.

"Creating smart membranes that could regulate the flow of drugs to a patient is another application," said Pearson.

"Synthetic Gecko" could have medical applications as well, for use in skin graft operations, for example. The previous attempts to develop similar materials have either focused on theorizing how the materials will work or have proved too expensive to scale up to a practical level.

"We're approaching the project from the point of view that we need to make this cost effective and that it will be cheap and simple to produce, so it's very possible that it will be used in commercial application," said Dr. Sargent.

What those might be is only limited by imagination, but may well include sportswear and prosthetic devices. There is still more testing to be done, although the BAE Systems team have demonstrated that the adhesive material does work on rough, dirty and wet surfaces, as well as in controlled conditions.

"We have already proved that it can stick to different types of surface, but there is more work to be done, as depending on what the product is used for, it will have to deal with different conditions," Dr. Haq told CNN.

"We fully believe that "Synthetic Gecko" can be in practical use within a year. Given the stringent testing procedures in the aerospace industry it almost seems more likely that it will be first seen in some form of commercial guise."

If so, a real Spider-Man suit might be at the top of many people's Christmas lists in a few years to come.


story.syntheticgecko1.jpg

"Synthetic Gecko" is a re-usuable adhesive material based on the gecko's ability to climb walls and ceilings.

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