Chemists turn to shellfish for inspiration to create better adhesives

Adhesives are something used in a myriad of things we use in our daily lives that you might not think of. Adhesives and various glues are used to hold automobiles together and in the construction industry, among others. Often, researchers turn to the natural world around us for inspiration in developing better products, including adhesives.

Many innovations and inspiration come from the ocean and aquatic creatures. For example, shellfish, such as mussels, have been able to stick to rocks and other objects using a type of biological glue since long before humans had glues of their own. Interestingly, despite scientific advancements, the natural adhesives created by shellfish are much stronger and more durable than any adhesive developed by humans.

In a search for improved adhesives, chemists at Purdue University hope to learn how shellfish create these natural adhesives and possibly use them in the human world. Professor of chemistry Jonathan Wilker said that his team started by looking at animals that make adhesives. Wilker says that scientists are still working to understand fundamentally how animals like oysters and mussels create the adhesives they're able to make and how the chemistry and engineering work together.

One major use for adhesives today is in the medical field, particularly in surgery, where adhesives are used to close wounds. One challenge for adhesives used in and on the human body is that the body is wet and constantly in motion. Researchers are developing new adhesives that would work underwater and are stronger and more sustainable while being made from food products that can be unstuck when needed.

Walker says the team is working on making adhesives with new functionality. For example, they want to add chemical groups to target properties such as wet bonding, rubber-like flexibility, or the ability to bond and de-bond when needed. Wilker says that while teams are using chemistry inspired by shellfish, their system simplifies what animals produce. The team is particularly focusing on producing glues that aren't petroleum-based and are biodegradable with have reversible properties. The team has currently developed some new adhesives and is working to apply for patents to commercialize them.