Why the Future of Polymer Electronics Could Use a Little Mussel

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Researchers have developed a promising new non-toxic surface coating for polymer electronics inspired by the biology of mollusks.
Ingrid Maasik | Shutterstock.com

Every day, science shows us that a compromise between performance and sustainability is possible. We can even meet the challenge of producing quality in quantity while preserving the environment with designs inspired by the environment itself.

Researchers have developed a promising new non-toxic surface coating for polymer electronics inspired by the biology of mollusks. The resulting combination of industrial efficiency and environmental performance could completely revolutionize polymer electronics manufacturing.

Silicon Valleys or Polymer Peaks?

Today, the inner-workings of electronics are dominated by robust and high-performance materials like silicon. For instance, screens and the chips that are used in microelectronics and photovoltaic panels usually contain silicon.

However, a silicon alternative emerged in 2000 when a trio of scientists was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of conductive polymers

Unlike silicon, such polymers are derived either from living organic material or derivatives of organic material synthesized in a laboratory.

The advent of organic electronics has created a demand for more organic polymers with cleaner manufacturing processes that don’t produce toxic byproducts; Now, almost two decades after the polymers were invented, a number of everyday industrial products like OLED screens, ‘curved TVs’, flexible display and rollable photovoltaic cells function thanks to organic polymers.

‘Seastick’

Incredibly, mussels can stick to almost any surface in salt water- a remarkable feature that has interested biomimicry researchers and has inspired non-toxic polymer coatings for electronics.

In a discovery that is proving advantageous for both the industry and the environment, remarkably effective mussel adhesive first caught the attention of a team of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara. They were subsequently inspired to capture the properties of the native mollusk proteins in a synthetic system to develop an environmentally-friendly surface coating for polymer electronics.

“Once again, nature provides scientists with ideas for new technologies.”

At the base of the mollusk‘s foot is a gland that produces filaments a few centimeters in length. These filaments then solidify when they come in contact with the seawater, allowing the mussel to stick to any surface.

In only a few seconds, mussels are able to attach themselves to the surface of materials like rock, rope or a ship’s hull using a form of cross-linking that strengthens the cohesion of the final set of filaments.

Because they chose to spend their lives stuck to rough and corosive environments that are usually characterized by salty water, strong currents, and wave impact, the mussels remedy the challenge by secreting a second protein.

This secondary protein essentially undoes the diluting effect that oxidization has on the adhesive filaments, thus allowing the first protein to retain its binding capacity.

Once again, nature provides scientists with ideas for new technologies. These new, non-toxic coatings for polymer electronics won’t require as many steps as silicon, making the process more efficient and cost-effective. Furthermore, the process won’t be toxic, with harmful byproducts being replaced by water.

Beyond polymer electronics, this mollusk-inspired technology could also be harnessed to develop other biomimetic and eco-friendly products; Imagine a super adhesive capable of forming strong bonds on wet surfaces (synthetic or organic), such as bones, teeth or a crack in the ship’s hull at sea.

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