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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Piranah-Prof Armor

It’s a match-up worthy of a late-night cable movie: put a school of starving piranha and a 300-pound fish together, and guess who comes out the winner?

The surprising answer—given the notorious guillotine-like bite of the piranha—is Brazil’s massive Arapaima fish. The Arapaima’s secret lies in its intricately designed scales, which provided “bioinspiration” for Marc Meyers, a professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, looking to develop flexible ceramics.

Meyers’ research shows that the Arapaima’s scales combine a heavily mineralized outer layer with an internal design that helps the scales resist the piranha’s razor-like bite. Underneath, each scale is composed of much softer collagen fibers stacked in alternating directions like plywood.

Meyers, who is an expert in biomimetics—the study of natural materials from living organisms and the processes that produce them—found inspiration for this study during an expedition to the Amazon basin. He wondered how the Arapaima could live in piranha-infested lakes and began to examine the armor-like protective scales.

The new materials could be used in soldiers’ body armor, which needs to be both tough and flexible. Other applications might include fuel cells, insulation and aerospace designs.

—Becky Ham