When thinking about the next innovation or technological breakthrough, look to Mother Nature.
That’s been one of the ideas that has inspired Garrett Milliron’s (PhD, Chemical and Environmental Engineering, ’12) academic and professional successes. The Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE) alumnus studied the mantis shrimp’s club-like appendage to uncover a breakthrough structure that became his research focus. And in various corporate and engineering capacities, Milliron has turned to nature — from desert flowers to rhinos — for inspiration and innovation.
The successes continue.
A new composite material technology that Milliron co-invented with David Kisailus, a former professor in BCOE’s Chemical and Environmental Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering departments, was recently used to develop high-performance, impact-resistant sports equipment.
The possibilities are endless.
“People have been turning to nature for materials longer than we have been classifying them, [for example] leather, wood, silk, rubber, etc.,” Milliron said. “This falls into a broad category of ‘bioutilization.’ Later came ‘biomimetics’ in which we tried to copy nature because we find ourselves surrounded by the results of parallel experiments that have been running [for] billions of years.”
When Milliron looked to nature, he turned to the “smasher” mantis shrimp for inspiration in developing a technology with a twisted or spiral-like structure, called a helicoid. The marine creature evolved this unique structure within its club-like appendage, which is made of mineralized chitin— the same material found in the shells of insects and crustaceans. This structure provides incredible strength, durability, and impact-resistance that allows the shrimp to pulverize its hard-shelled prey with incredible speed and force while avoiding catastrophic damage to itself.
This work became the focus of Milliron’s dissertation, “Lightweight Impact-Resistant Composite Materials: Lessons from Mantis Shrimp.”
This technology that Milliron and Kisailus developed was later patented and licensed to Helicoid Industries Inc., a composites technology firm. Helicoid partnered with CCM Hockey, a Canadian ice-hockey equipment manufacturer, which last November announced its Tacks AS-VI Pro hockey stick. The hockey stick is the first of its kind to utilize helicoid technology, which increases its durability and integrity.
“This hockey stick is a bioinspired marvel because modern engineered fibers have higher performance than natural fibers,” Milliron said. “Nature provided the multifunctional geometric solution.”
This helicoid technology can be applied to a multitude of industries, including automotive, body armor, and aerospace, he said.
Such technology is just one example of the way innovations in materials science and engineering are gamechangers.
“Nature has been synthesizing architected, multifunctional materials for millions of years and under many extreme conditions,” said Kisailus, currently a professor of materials science and engineering at UC Irvine. “And while nature only has a few select materials to choose from, it finds ways to construct these materials to perform at a very high level. Now imagine taking those blueprints from nature and applying engineering materials. It presents a significant opportunity to transform what we do in the science and engineering arena and translate this to societal needs.”
Milliron said new materials “can change the world in ways that feel like magic."
“Room temperature superconductors would revolutionize computing, power transmission, and transportation . . . Impact-tolerant glass would allow phones to be caseless. If we could make graphene with a cheap . . . process, it would enable pocket parachutes and space elevators. Few things can be compared to the impact of new materials when considering constraints on product design.”
Milliron credited Kisailus, who was his advisor and dissertation chair, for motivating him.
“Without his support, guidance, and experience these projects would have taken a very different and far less focused course,” he wrote in his dissertation.
“Garrett was a very unique graduate student,” Kisailus said. “Incredibly gifted and most importantly, creative. It was a pleasure to work with him!”
Looking to nature for inspiration also spilled over to Milliron’s professional ventures. When he served as director of engineering for a window energy-management system company, he looked to desert flowers for examples of how to vent excess heat. When looking for new vision systems, Milliron looked to the eyes of jumping spiders.
“Reverse engineering nature is a fun process that tells a good story, but I keep returning to the [treasure] trove because nature is really good at optimizing unexpected multifunctional solutions,” he said. “It is a lot easier to stay focused on chasing an ambitious goal when a lifeform has already achieved it.”
Milliron currently serves as chief executive officer for gaming studio Froglet Games. The company develops games with features inspired by, for example, rhinos, manta rays, snakes, and dolphins.
“Nature is a treasure trove of inspiration no matter what my goals are,” he said
Header photo: Mantis shrimp (Odontodactuylus Scyllarus). (Public domain/Roy L. Caldwell, Department of Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley - National Science Foundation)