Mimicking lizard skin to save energy on an industrial scale
An EU-funded project is set to drive the commercial development of breakthrough laser-engineered products inspired by the unique skin and scale textures of animals and insects, potentially leading to entirely new applications across industry, energy and medicine.
© Eric Isselée #35199427, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
The EU-funded LABIONICS project is developing a multi-purpose technology platform, manufacturing tools and an open innovation ecosystem to transform cutting-edge biomimetic research into industrial and commercial applications with diverse benefits for businesses, citizens and the environment.
It builds on the results of a predecessor EU-funded initiative, LINABIOFLUID, which developed novel biomimetic micro and nanostructures. This research was inspired by the unique ways in which the skins of some lizards help them survive in arid conditions by collecting dew, and how flat bark bugs change colour to camouflage themselves from predators when they get wet.
Using precision lasers to replicate these miniscule fluid-carrying surface textures as well as others inspired by butterfly wings and shark skin on man-made materials, the aim of the LABIONICS team is to enable the creation of commercially viable products. These will carry fluids more efficiently, provide better lubrication, reduce friction, eliminate reflection and can repel dirt and bacteria.
LABIONICS aims to match the unique properties of the biomimetic structures developed in LINABIOFLUID with potential market applications. Our technology can be explained as a technology enabler a multi-purpose technology that can bring unique new features to products on the market, says project coordinator Emmanuel Stratakis of the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas in Greece.
Better lubrication, less wear and tear
Among the applications that have attracted the greatest commercial interest and could be the first to market are novel micro-surface structures to enhance the lubrication of machine parts and reduce friction by as much as 50 % compared to existing technologies.
This would improve energy efficiency and extend the lifespan of a vast number of machine and vehicle components, reducing CO2 emissions and the environmental impact of industry, as well as saving businesses and consumers considerable sums of money.
Research suggests that by taking advantage of new surface structures, materials and lubrication technologies in vehicles, machinery and other equipment, energy losses due to friction and wear could potentially be reduced by 40 % in the long term. Worldwide, these savings would amount to 1.4 % of GDP annually and 8.7 % of total energy consumption over a period of 15 years.
But for that to happen, these novel friction-reducing materials need to make it to market, with production at a scale that makes them affordable and viable for industrial use.
Cost-efficient bio-inspired products
The LABIONICS team is preparing to test the technology with several leading manufacturing companies. The focus is on making laser-engineered microstructures suitable for industrial applications across large surface areas, while exploring faster and more cost-efficient manufacturing techniques.
Other close-to-market applications identified by the LABIONICS researchers include exploiting the unusual anti-reflective properties of laser-engineered structures in glass manufacturing. This could be used to enhance anti-glare coatings on corrective lenses and camera lens elements, and anti-reflective coatings on solar cells. Longer term, Stratakis envisages the surface-treatment technology being used for products requiring dirt and water-repelling features, self-cleaning and antibacterial properties, or drag reduction for underwater devices.
The biomimetic surface-treatment research community is producing more than 100 patents every year and the number of peer-reviewed articles on the subject is doubling every two or three years. This enormous activity has not yet been translated into new products due to the lack of a technological platform that can bring these innovations to market. This is where LABIONICS will transform the industry, Stratakis says. We intend to create a vibrant open innovation ecosystem where the biomimetic laser texturing approach will be the central technological platform, enabling novel applications to be developed by researchers around the world.