Get a Grip: Get a Gecko
By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst
Originally Published January 25, 2023
It has been two decades since scientists learned to mimic the ability of the gecko to adhere to any surface reversibly. The critical question is whether this biomimetic technology has found commercial application.
The Department of Defense has been the leader in developing gecko-inspired technology since they want to improve the capabilities of their warfighters, including climbing surfaces without ropes and ladders. This need became the Holy Grail of applications for gecko-based technology. A sidebar to this was developing robots that could scale smooth and wet surfaces.
The challenge was both materials and manufacturing. The gecko’s foot contains not only microscopic paddles but also each paddle had nano-size branches. The combination of these gave the gecko its unique abilities. It was also recently discovered that the gecko secreted a lipid that coated these micro-structures, further enhancing its capabilities. Yup, sometimes Nature can trick the best of scientists as they try to mimic its abilities.
Are there commercial products made using gecko-mimicking technology? Indeed, there are. One company makes a product that will keep your glasses from slipping down your nose or keep your cell phone from sliding off your car’s dashboard while you are making a quick turn around the corner and are not exactly earth-shattering.
The ability to allow construction workers to climb up the side of a building or window washers to do the same thing is still elusive. The gecko-inspired technology for the touchpads on climbing gloves is still expensive and not easily able to be manufactured on a commercial scale.
However, this technology has found a niche in the commercial world. Gecko-mimicking materials are combined with robotic technologies in the manufacturing sector to help manipulate products and move them along quickly through the assembly process, especially in clean-room medical, pharma, and semiconductor manufacturing. Their press-to-pick-up and twist (or tilt)-to-release delicate materials without leaving any adhesive residue behind are changing how these products are manufactured. This is also less complicated than the established method that uses vacuum for suction, a simpler process that uses less energy, and is thus more sustainable. The gecko-mimic surface is not as complex nor has the strength of Nature’s gecko, but that is not necessary for the application. The delicate touch-and-release is.
The gecko grip is now being considered in the food and agriculture industry. How can a robot grab a tomato? Gently, the gecko-mimic surface keeps that tomato from slipping out of its grip.
Gecko-inspired technology may well revolutionize a spectrum of industries. Could yours be one of them? Will your competitors leave you in the dust?
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