MIT Professor Merges Biology and Materials through Biomateriomics / by Brittany Ilardi

Buehler’s research, such as that modeled after spider silk, combines biology and materials in order to create greater strength and durability.

Buehler’s research, such as that modeled after spider silk, combines biology and materials in order to create greater strength and durability.

Engineering is complicated. Think about how many different components are needed to create a simple structure. Today’s buildings use multiple stiff materials that are bolted together and require maintenance over time. What if the structures of tomorrow could rely on just one continuous, self-healing material?

Markus Buehler, Professor and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, is trying to bridge the gap between materials and biology through his study of “biomateriomics.” According to Buehler, “advances could enable us to provide engineered materials and structures with properties that resemble those of biological systems, in particular the ability to self-assemble, to self-repair, to adapt and evolve, and to provide multiple functions that can be controlled through external cues.”  Imagine the possibilities for a building wall to heat and cool the surrounding space instead of relying on mechanical systems or a cracked window self-repairing. 

The future of materials will take advantage of diversity in the structure rather than diversity in the building block. Like the human body utilizes the “building block” of the cell to carry out thousands of functions, Buehler’s research aims to support a variety of structural needs using the same basic chemicals.  

Nature tells us that it is entirely possible. Take spider silk, for example. Buehler’s team is exploring how spiders produce protein-based silk that is both strong and stretchable. The way these proteins are assembled in different architectures controls how a spider web forms and how durable it becomes. Unlike human-made structures that have weak points and are discontinuous, spider silk is a flowing material with different properties at different points. The silk is chemically the same throughout, but put together in varying sequences in order to create strength and flexibility where needed.

“The ability to create more function with less is something we’re trying to get to. We’re trying to create a more rational approach to engineering by focusing on nano and microstructure.” Buehler imagines a world where we can one day indicate the need for a material with certain properties, then feed these requirements into a computer modeling software and have it identify the process needed to make this particular material structure.

For Buehler, it’s all about getting more for less. Biomateriomics presents the opportunity to create a more tailored product that can be customized in ways that were previously impossible. Cost is another driving point. If you can reduce the need for various material resources by focusing on changing the internal structure of just one, you can generate huge savings.

“Biology tells us that we can make these flexible structures. I think that the next five to ten years will be about figuring out how.”

To learn more, check out the research led by Professor Buehler at his Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM) and the Multiscale Materials design course offered.