It’s called Proteus, and sticks and stones will not break its bones.
The new material was named after an ancient Greek God — Proteus, god of rivers, the “Old Man of the Sea“, as Homer called him. It’s a fitting name since researchers took inspiration from sea creatures to design it, and it’s also fitting because it almost seems too amazing to be real.
Abalones, or shellfish, are found in seas all around the world. They have soft, mushy bodies, protected by a hard mineral shell, and researchers wondered just how such a soft core is able to generate and use this solid coating.
Lead author Dr Stefan Szyniszewski, assistant professor of applied mechanics, in the Department of Engineering, Durham University, explains:
“We were intrigued by how the cellular structure of the grapefruit and the tiled structure of mollusc shells can prevent damage to the fruit or the creatures inside, despite being made of relatively weak organic building blocks.”
Abalone shells generally consist of aragonite tiles — a hard, carbonate mineral — interlinked with a bio-polymer that grants them even more resistance. Researchers started from this structure but replaced the materials with industrial ceramics and an aluminum metallic matrix.
Proteus is essentially made from aluminium cells wrapped around ceramic spheres. The design is strong, light, and un-cuttable. It’s not just the fact that the material itself is tough — the design adds an extra twist to it.
You can cut or drill the edges of Proteus, but as you get a bit deeper into the material, the blade will inevitably be blunted, researchers say. The key lies in the ceramic spheres inside the casing that create an interlocking protective mechanism. The vibrational energy is turned against the blade, rendering it ineffective regardless of how much force you add. Not only is Proteus un-cuttable, but it will weaken and destroy the blade that try to cut it.
It’s a form of active, not passive resistance, Szyniszewski explains.
“Essentially cutting our material is like cutting through a jelly filled with nuggets. If you get through the jelly you hit the nuggets and the material will vibrate in such a way that it destroys the cutting disc or drill bit,” he says.
“The ceramics embedded in this flexible material are also made of very fine particles which stiffen and resist the angle grinder or drill when you’re cutting at speed in the same way that a sandbag would resist and stop a bullet at high speed.”
The researchers put their material to the test. They took an angle grinder capable of cutting through steel armor used to protect against explosive mines in less than a minute — it was rendered inoperative by Proteus.
Needless to say, the applications are exciting. For starters, you could finally make a bike lock that’s 100% safe. In North America alone, two million bikes are stolen every year, but Proteus could bring a halt to that. Armor and protective gear are another potential application.
Researchers have applied for a patent so we may see products hitting the marketing relatively soon.
In addition to these direct applications, this could lead the way for an entire new class of materials — one of mythic inspiration. Study co-author Dr. Miranda Anderson, Department of Philosophy, University of Stirling :
“Because the successful resistance of our material system requires it to undergo internal transformations, we chose the name Proteus.
“In 1605, Francis Bacon compared natural materials to Proteus who ‘ever changed shapes’ and he argued that through experimentation we can reveal the metamorphic qualities of materials.”
The study has been published in Scientific Reports.