Biodegradable take on velcro latches on like a parasitic climbing plant


Scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology have developed what they describe as the first biodegradable version of Velcro. While it won’t keep your shoes on, the material can be harmlessly attached to plants for the purposes of environmental monitoring, used for the controlled release of molecules into the plant’s vascular system, and even dissolve after the job is done.

“Our studies always begin by observing nature, seeking to replicate the strategies employed by living creatures through low-environmental-impact robotic technologies,” says study author Barbara Mazzolai. “With this latest research project, we have further demonstrated that it is possible to create innovative solutions that not only have the aim of monitoring the health of our planet, in particular of plants, but of doing so without altering it.”

Just like original Velcro was inspired by the tendency of burrs from burdock plants to cling to clothing, this new eco-friendly form of the popular fastener also takes its cues from nature. The plant Galium aparine, or “catchweed” has evolved an ability to climb over other plants through a parasitic anchoring system featuring micro-hooks on its leaves. This sees it latch itself on the surfaces of other plants for physical support as it grows.

The biodegradable form of Velcro proved capable of solidly attaching to different plant species
The biodegradable form of Velcro proved capable of solidly attaching to different plant species
IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

After studying these hooks in fine detail, the scientists used a high-resolution 3D printer to reproduce them in biodegradable and soluble form, crafted out a sugar-like substance called isomalt. Testing showed these artificial hooks to be capable of solidly attaching to different plant species, and act as a kind of plaster that can be secured to their leaves to serve a variety of purposes.

These tiny hooks can connect to the leaf’s vascular system and can therefore be used to release molecules and substances that might benefit them, such as pharmaceuticals and pesticides. And because the isomalt is soluble, it can safely dissolve thereafter.

The biodegradable Velcro can be printed with a sugar-like substance called isomalt or photosensitive resin
The biodegradable Velcro can be printed with a sugar-like substance called isomalt or photosensitive resin

IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Alternatively, the hooks were also able to be printed with a photosensitive resin. These combined with electronics and sensors for light, temperature and humidity to form intelligent clips for wireless communication on plant health.

“These micro-hooks are versatile and have allowed us to create a range of applications, as well as filing a patent,” explained Isabella Fiorello, main author of the project. “This form of anchoring can be exploited for in situ monitoring of the plant’s microclimate, such as temperature, humidity and light, or for the controlled release of molecules into the plant’s vascular system.”

You can check out a demonstration of the technology below, while the research was published in the journal Communications Materials. 

Artificial micro-hooks inspired by the leaves on the “catchweed” plant

Source: Italian Institute of Technology via EurekAlert



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