Technology 3 min read

Next-gen, 3D-Printed Body Armor Inspired by the Conch Shell

Alex James Bramwell |

Alex James Bramwell |

A team of researchers from MIT is exploring conch shells to create artificial, strong structures using a 3D printing technology.

The conch is a very popular seafood, especially in East Asian cuisines. Americans are likely thinking of the object of power from the book “Lord of the Flies.” But apart from the culinary use of their flesh, the conch has other characteristics which may be useful in industrial fields. Its shell is renowned for its rigidity which scientists study and take inspiration from to create new durable materials for various uses.

Maybe we’ll call next-gen soldiers using this armor “Super Shelldiers.”

3D printed conch shell inspires the newest body armor.Click To Tweet

Conch Shell, the Toughest Body Armor in Nature

Mollusks withstand enormous and constant pressures from the weight of the ocean itself but also from impacts of materials like rocks as well as predatory harassment. However, no marine shelled organism compares to the conch, whose shell is extraordinarily tough (and noisy).

Before being able to savor this food delicacy, you have to extract the flesh from the shell, which is a very “tough” task! Expert fishers and cooks recommend hitting the shell hard in a specific point with a hammer or better yet a machete.

The secret to this unusual impact resilience of conch shells lies in their three-tier structure or, as researchers call it, the “zigzag matrix” that prevent cracks from spreading deep and wide through the shell.

The Legendary Toughness of the Conch Shell to Inspire Biomimetic Synthetic Materials

Three researchers at MIT, Grace Gu, a graduate student, postdoc Mahdi Takaffoli, and Markus Buehler, McAfee Professor of Engineering, set out to replicate the structure of conch shells in artificial materials.

A paper on their findings, Hierarchically Enhanced Impact Resistance of Bioinspired Composites was published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Many civilian and military institutes supported the research: the Office of Naval Research, the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Although the special structure of conch shells was understood by researchers, they were unable to replicate it in the lab until now.

The trio of researchers developed a 3D printing technology to print and test conch-like structures.

Tests showed that Conch-like composite materials have 85 percent fewer chances of cracking, and when they do crack, the cross-lamellar architecture would prevent crack propagation.

This new 3D printing technology could even allow for the design of gears with criss-cross features that would be strong without the brittleness of stiffer materials.

Protective helmets and other protective gear could be easily tailored to a specific person’s measurements and then 3D printed relatively cheaply.

Would you go into battle wearing conch shell armor?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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