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NEWS
Feathers Could Provide Model For New Adhesives
February 7, 2019

The look of astonishment and wonder on a child’s face when first discovering the complex nature of bird feathers is something to behold. Small fingers run along the feather’s edge making the feather zip and unzip as they marvel at the almost miraculous way the feather pulls itself back together.


Researchers found that barbules— the smaller, hook-like structures that connect feather barbs— are spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of one another in all birds, from the hummingbird to the condor. This suggests that the spacing is an important property for flight. Credit: University of California San Diego.

Today, according to information provided by the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego), engineers suggest that “magical” zipping mechanism could provide a model for new adhesives and new aerospace materials. They detail their findings in a paper, “Scaling of bird wings and feathers for efficient flight,” published recently in the journal Science Advances.

After almost two decades, researcher Tarah Sullivan is the first to take a detailed look, irrespective of specific species, at the general structure of bird feathers. She 3D-printed structures that mimic the feathers’ vanes, barbs and barbules to better understand their properties—for example, how the underside of a feather can capture air for lift, while the top of the feather can block air out when gravity needs to take over.

Dr. Sullivan found that barbules— the smaller, hook-like structures that connect feather barbs— are spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of one another in all birds, from the hummingbird to the condor. This suggests that the spacing is an important property for flight.

“The first time I saw feather barbules under the microscope I was in awe of their design: intricate, beautiful and functional,” she said. “As we studied feathers across many species it was amazing to find that despite the enormous differences in size of birds, barbules spacing was constant.”

Believing that the study of the vane-barb-barbule structure further could lead to the development of new materials for aerospace applications and to new adhesives, Dr. Sullivan built prototypes to prove her point. “We believe that these structures could serve as inspiration for an interlocking one-directional adhesive or a material with directionally tailored permeability,” she said.


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