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Scientists have discovered the secrets behind the super strength of ant teeth

In order to keep consumer electronics from shrinking in size, engineers must develop small but extremely strong instruments that can be used in the fabrication of the gadgets. Using some of the tiniest, toughest tools we know of, such as ant teeth, one group is hoping to obtain blueprints from mother nature in the process of research.

The insects' miniature chompers, which are no thicker than a strand of human hair, can bite down with enough force to cut through tough leaves without causing any damage to the leaves. When the creatures bite down on something, the force is evenly distributed throughout their bodies due to the even arrangement of zinc atoms in their teeth. According to the researchers, this characteristic could one day be applied to tools that have been created by human beings.

Uniform Distribution

In essence, "having a uniform distribution," according to Arun Devaraj, a senior research scientist at the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the lead author of a study on the composition of ant teeth published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports. "Having a uniform distribution" is defined as "having a consistent distribution". "Having the uniform distribution is the secret," he added. "The ant chompers are capable of cutting through human skin without breaking — it's difficult to do that even with our own teeth."

For the researchers to get to the bottom of nature's secrets and meet humanity's demand for pocket-sized electronics — so we can conveniently check our Twitter feeds, of course — they first isolated a minuscule piece of a single ant tooth from its natural environment. Ants have two, or sometimes three, teeth on the outside of their curved external mandible, also known as their jaw. As a next step, the team turned to an imaging technique known as atom probe tomography, which allows them to create a detailed picture of where each atom within an object is located.

'The idea was to use that technique to really understand how zinc is distributed inside these ant teeth, and how that is contributing to the strength they are gaining,' Devaraj explained.

Atom probe tomography operates on the principle of reverse analysis. Essentially, you can place an item in a chamber and slowly evaporate it — atom by atom — while simultaneously collecting the data from each component on a detector. Using this information, you can then reconstruct the object as a 3D model, but this time with atoms that can be distinguished from one another.

When the researchers followed these steps with a microscopic "needle" made from an ant's nibbler, they discovered that the zinc atoms in the tooth — which are responsible for the piercing and painful nature of ant bites — were distributed in a surprisingly uniform manner rather than in clumps.

What is behind the super strength of ant teeth

Because zinc atoms are evenly dispersed throughout the ant's teeth, every time the ant bites into something, the force is perfectly distributed throughout their teeth. That explains why only about 10-20 percent of the zinc required for their incredibly strong dental material is actually used. The researchers claim that the animals end up using 60 percent or less of the force that they would have needed if their teeth were identical to our comparatively weak pearly whites, which contain a variety of elements in different types and distributions, as a result of their findings.

According to Devaraj, organic and inorganic chemists can actually collaborate to develop materials that are extremely strong and that are inspired by these types of materials.

It would be beneficial in both ways to apply the concept of evenly spread atoms, whether it is zinc or another element, to the instruments that are used to construct human technology. They would be less expensive because they would require a smaller number of more expensive, stronger components to function properly. The fact that less force would be required during use would also make them more efficient in the long run.

Moving Forward

The next step is for Devaraj and his team of researchers to continue their investigation into ways to revolutionize the way we construct compact technological devices by examining other teeny-tiny species that are armed with lethal weapons.

"We have already started looking at scorpion stings, for example, and the spider fang," Devaraj explained, "as well as many other kinds of miniature tools to understand the kind of small tool arsenals that insects have." Devaraj is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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