October 16, 2021

Beyond Going Long

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Scientists reveal the secrets of the supernatural power of ant teeth

Ants have teeth?! Are they super strong?!

Getty/Gulvo

In order for consumer electronics to continue to shrink, engineers must build smaller yet much more powerful devices to be used to manufacture devices. One group hopes to get plans from Mother Nature by studying some of the smallest and most difficult tools we know: ant teeth.

Small chisels can cut through thick leaves without damaging them, and they are as thin as a tuft of human hair. This all has to do with the arrangement of the zinc atoms in the teeth, allowing forces to be distributed evenly every time the creature grinds. Scientists say this feature could one day be applied to man-made devices.

“The balanced distribution is basically a mystery,” said Aaron Devraj, chief scientist at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. A study was published on the structure of ant teeth Wednesday in Scientific Reports. Ants mowers can “bite human skin without breaking it—it’s hard to handle with your teeth.”

In order for the study researchers to delve deeper into nature’s mysteries and meet the human need for portable electronics – so we can easily check our Twitter channels – they first took a small piece of ant teeth. The pieces are separate. ants two, or Sometimes more, its curved outer jaw or teeth on the jaw. The team then turned to a technology called atomic probe tomography, which accurately visualizes the location of each atom in the body.

“The plan was to use this technology to understand how zinc is distributed to the teeth of ants and how it gains strength,” Devraj said.

Thanks to the zinc atoms that have been introduced, the almonds pack a powerful bite.

Robert Schofield/University of Oregon

Nuclear probe tomography works by reverse analysis. In principle, you could put an object in a chamber, then slowly vaporize it – atom by atom – and collect data on each component of the detector. With this information, you can reconstruct the object as a 3D model, except this time using recognizable atoms.

After performing these steps with a microscopic “needle” of an ant bite, the team found that the dental particles in the tooth – responsible for the painful nature of an ant bite – were surprisingly evenly distributed, rather than in groups.

Every time an ant bites something, the force is completely transmitted through its teeth thanks to the even distribution of zinc atoms. This explains why about 10-20% zinc is actually needed for its strong dental content. Even better, scientists claim that the animals use about 60% or less of the force they would need if their teeth were similar to our relatively brittle whites with different species and elemental distributions.

“Organic and inorganic chemists can work together to synthesize really powerful materials, inspired by these types of materials,” Devraj said.

Applying the concept of evenly distributed zinc atoms or other elements to devices produced by human technology will provide a dual benefit for our future miniature devices. It will be cheaper because smaller quantities will require more expensive and stronger components. It will also be more efficient because less force will be required during use.

Furthermore, Devraj and his fellow scientists want to further explore ways to build compact technological devices by analyzing other small species that possess revolutionary weapons.

“We started looking for scorpion stings and spider fangs, for example, and many other types of miniature tools to understand a small arsenal of insect tools,” Devraj said.

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