November 6, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

You’ll Love Beetle-Foot Tape

If beetles can do it, scientists should be able to: climb the wall, that is.  Some researchers at Max Planck Institute have invented an adhesive that sticks to glass like beetle feet.  The secret was to manufacture thousands of microscopic pads that adhere to smooth surfaces by van der Waals forces (the attraction of neighboring atoms).  “Inspired by the soles of beetles’ feet, and therefore biomimetic, the special surface structure of the material allows it to stick to smooth walls without any adhesives.”  The press release tells how bugs and reptiles had it first:

It has been known for some time how insects, spiders and geckos have such a remarkable talent for walking on walls and ceilings. Extremely thin hairs literally stick their feet to the wall and the larger the animal, the finer the hairs.  Geckos, which are heavy compared to a fly, have been using nanotechnology for this purpose for millions of years ….  According to findings made by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research in Stuttgart, the shape of the fibres is also significant; for example, spatula-shaped ends on the hairs provide particularly strong adhesion.

How might beetle-foot or gecko-foot adhesives be used?  Reusable adhesive tape, soles for climbers’ boots (Spider-man?) come to mind.  What else?

Potential applications range from protective foil for delicate glasses to reusable adhesive fixtures – say goodbye to fridge magnets, here come the microhairs, which will also stick to your mirror, your cupboard and your windows.  For example, the new material will soon be found in industrial production processes in the manufacture of glass components.  It has already been shown to perform in higher weight categories: the artificial adhesive fibers on the soles of a 120 gram robot helped it to climb a vertical glass wall.

It was quite an engineering challenge to design the prototype, and the bugs are still being worked out (if Mr. Beetle Bailey will pardon the expression).  Their product, when it comes on the market, will be user-friendly: “It lasts for hundreds of applications, does not leave any visible marks and can be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water.”

You can just hear the commercials already.  What should they call this stuff?  It should beat out any TV ads for kaboom, vacuum cleaner robots and battery-free flashlights.  Put on your announcer voice and say, “Sticks to almost anything.  Leaves no marks and requires no messy cleanup.  Use it in the kitchen, the bathroom, the office.  Protect your eyeglasses and priceless photographs.  Leave yourself notes on the window.  Perfect for the artist or draftsman.  Usable anywhere – everywhere.  It’s amazing!   But wait!  Order now, and we’ll throw in this self-cleaning windshield, a $60 value, absolutely free!  You get a hundred-foot roll of GeckoTape, a whisker robot for the kids, and the self-cleaning windshield, all for just $39.99.  What are you waiting for?  Operators are standing by to take your call.  Call now!  1-800-THANK-ID.”
    So geckos have been using nanotechnology for millions of years, they say.  Was this by intelligent design?  No, it couldn’t have been.  It is so vastly superior to human engineering, it must have been made by blind, mindless processes of accidental chance.

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