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This mollusc tooth could be key to next-gen energy technology

Professional Engineering

A single chiton tooth, showing the magnetite cusp (Credit: Kisailus Biomimetics & Nanostructured Materials Lab at UC Riverside)
A single chiton tooth, showing the magnetite cusp (Credit: Kisailus Biomimetics & Nanostructured Materials Lab at UC Riverside)

Molluscs that scrape algae off ocean rocks using extremely hard, magnetic teeth could help lead to a huge variety of new technology, including wear-resistant coatings and nano-scale energy materials.

Chemical engineer and materials scientist David Kisailus from the University of California, Riverside, teamed up with assistant professor of agriculture Michiko Nemoto from Okayama University in Japan to investigate the teeth of the gumboot chiton, found in the northern Pacific Ocean.

The creature’s specialised scraping teeth “have the maximum hardness and stiffness of any known biomineral” as they are made from magnetic mineral magnetite, the researchers said.

Although magnetite is common in the Earth’s crust, only a few animals produce it and little is known about how they do it. The researchers investigated the mollusc’s RNA molecules in its pointed teeth, finding a protein that stores iron and mitochondria that could provide the energy needed to transform raw materials into magnetite.

The researchers hope a better understanding of the ‘biomineralisation’ process could solve an “urgent problem” for next-generation electronics – nanoscale energy sources to power them. The mollusc’s teeth regenerate after wearing down, so the process involved could help scientists and engineers control the growth of magnetite in a manufacturing process.

As the most magnetic of all natural minerals on Earth, magnetite’s magnetic fields have electrical applications. It is also used for water purification and could form ferrofluids for targeted medicine delivery within the body. The material could also improve water- and abrasion-resistant materials, the team said. 

The open access paper, which included other contributors, was published in Scientific Reports.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily reflect the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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