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Popular Mechanics, National Geographic highlight professor’s work with geckos

August 05, 2014

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Popular Mechanics and National Geographic recently turned to Professor of Biology Kellar Autumn to describe how geckos stick to walls and ceilings, and to explain what that understanding means for the future of manufacturing. Autumn worked with a team from South Korea to use actual gecko toe hairs (setae) in the manufacture of small electronics. Their research originally appeared in the Journal of the Royal Society.

“Gecko-like fibrillar adhesives are only sticky when we need them to be, and are switchable mechanically,” Autumn told Popular Mechanics. “An inward pull along the surface makes them stick, and a push away causes release.”

The researchers removed setae, glued them to glass, and dragged the resulting structure across pieces of silicon to pick them up. To release the tiny bits of silicon, they dragged the device in the opposite direction.

Scientists can harvest millions of setae from a single gecko. According to the research team, the process does no harm to the animal, which will grow new toe pads in its next molt.

Autumn’s 20 years of research into adhesive nanostructures has produced seven patents and landed coverage in PBS’ Nova, Discovery Channel’s Beyond Invention, Newsweek, the New York Times, and Scientific American. Autumn found that van der Waals forces—weak molecular attractions—are responsible for the gecko’s ability to adhere to surfaces. The size and shape of the setae determine their stickiness. Autumn also led the research team that synthesized the world’s first adhesive nanostructure inspired by setae. Engineers have since added such adhesives to automotive brake pads, sutures, and rock climbing shoes.

“I am confident that research and development of synthetic gecko adhesives will soon catch up with, and surpass, the natural material,” Autumn said. “Gecko adhesives of the future can be custom-designed for each task.”

Caleb Diehl ’16 contributed to this story.

Popular Mechanics National Geographic Biology Department