Deer antlers are inspiring tougher materials

(Image credit: Kitty Terwolbeck // CC BY 2.0)

Antlers are pretty remarkable things. Most species of deer grow and shed them every year, and the rate at which they increase in size makes them the fastest-growing bone among mammals.

The other thing that's pretty remarkable about antlers is how resilient they are. Evolved for fighting, they absorb huge amounts of energy during male-on-male combat without breaking. Now, materials engineers are studying them to find out how.

Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London used x-ray scans and computer modelling to probe the nanostructure of deer antlers. They found a unique arrangement of fibres, which they say makes the substance more resilient.

"The fibrils that make up the antler are staggered rather than in line with each other," said Paolino De Falco, the first author on a paper describing the work. "This allows them to absorb the energy from the impact of a clash during a fight."

Filling in Gaps

As well as opening up possibilities for the creation of similarly damage-resistant materials, the discovery fills in gaps in the structural modelling of bone.

"Our next step is to create a 3D printed model with fibres arranged in staggered configuration and linked by an elastic interface," said Ettore Barbieri, who also contributed to the research.

"The aim is to prove that additive manufacturing -- where a prototype can be created a layer at a time -- can be used to create damage resistant composite material."

The full details of the research were published in the journal ACS Biomaterials.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.