Bioinspired Nanomaterials: Learning from Nature for Advanced Applications

What are Bioinspired Nanomaterials?

Bioinspired nanomaterials are synthetic materials designed to mimic the structure, properties, and functions of biological systems at the nanoscale. By learning from nature's time-tested strategies, researchers can develop advanced materials with unprecedented capabilities for various applications, including medicine, energy, and environmental remediation.
This image illustrates the concept of bioinspired nanomaterials, where synthetic materials are designed to mimic biological structures and functions
Left: Natural nacre. Right: Inverse nacre-like epoxy-graphene layered nanocomposites. (Reprinted with permission by Cell Press)

Key Principles of Bioinspired Nanomaterials

The design of bioinspired nanomaterials relies on several key principles:
  • Hierarchical Structures: Biological systems often exhibit hierarchical structures, where complex functions emerge from the assembly of simple building blocks across multiple length scales. Bioinspired nanomaterials aim to replicate this hierarchical organization to achieve enhanced properties and functions.
  • Self-Assembly: Nature relies on self-assembly processes to create complex structures from simple molecular components. Bioinspired nanomaterials harness self-assembly strategies to create ordered nanostructures with precise control over their size, shape, and composition.
  • Adaptivity and Responsiveness: Biological systems are highly adaptive and responsive to their environment. Bioinspired nanomaterials are designed to exhibit similar dynamic behaviors, such as stimuli-responsiveness, self-healing, and self-regulation, enabling them to adapt to changing conditions and maintain their functionality.
  • Multifunctionality: Biological systems often perform multiple functions using the same set of components. Bioinspired nanomaterials aim to achieve multifunctionality by integrating different properties and functions within a single material, such as combining mechanical strength, optical properties, and bioactivity.

Examples of Bioinspired Nanomaterials

Researchers have developed various bioinspired nanomaterials by mimicking the structures and functions of biological systems:

Lotus-Inspired Superhydrophobic Surfaces

The lotus leaf exhibits remarkable water-repellent properties due to its hierarchical surface structure, consisting of micro- and nanoscale bumps coated with hydrophobic wax. Bioinspired superhydrophobic surfaces mimic this structure using nanostructured materials, such as nanofibers or nanoparticle coatings, to achieve self-cleaning, anti-icing, and anti-fouling properties.

Butterfly Wing-Inspired Photonic Nanostructures

Butterfly wings display vibrant colors and iridescence due to their intricate nanostructures, which selectively reflect and interfere with light. Bioinspired photonic nanostructures, such as photonic crystals and plasmonic nanoarrays, are designed to mimic these optical effects for applications in color displays, optical sensors, and anti-counterfeiting technologies.

Gecko-Inspired Adhesive Nanomaterials

Gecko feet are covered with millions of fine hairs called setae, which enable them to adhere to surfaces through van der Waals forces. Bioinspired adhesive nanomaterials, such as gecko-inspired adhesive tapes and robotics grippers, mimic this hierarchical structure using nanofabricated arrays of polymer or carbon nanotube fibers to achieve strong, reversible adhesion.

Nacre-Inspired Nanocomposites

Nacre, the inner layer of mollusk shells, exhibits exceptional mechanical strength and toughness due to its brick-and-mortar microstructure, consisting of alternating layers of hard calcium carbonate platelets and soft organic polymer. Bioinspired nanocomposites replicate this structure using hard nanoparticles or nanosheets embedded in a soft polymer matrix to achieve high strength, toughness, and crack resistance.

Synthesis and Fabrication of Bioinspired Nanomaterials

The synthesis and fabrication of bioinspired nanomaterials involve various strategies, including:
  • Template-Directed Synthesis: Biological structures, such as virus capsids or bacterial membranes, can serve as templates for the synthesis of nanostructured materials. By using these templates, researchers can control the size, shape, and arrangement of the resulting nanomaterials.
  • Self-Assembly: Bioinspired nanomaterials often rely on self-assembly processes, where nanobuilding blocks spontaneously organize into ordered structures driven by noncovalent interactions, such as hydrogen bonding, electrostatic forces, or hydrophobic effects. Self-assembly can be guided by molecular design, surface functionalization, or external stimuli.
  • Nanofabrication Techniques: Advanced nanofabrication techniques, such as electron beam lithography, nanoimprint lithography, and 3D printing, enable the precise patterning and fabrication of bioinspired nanostructures. These techniques allow for the creation of complex hierarchical structures with nanoscale features.
  • Biomineralization: Biomineralization is a process by which living organisms produce mineralized tissues, such as bones, teeth, and shells. Bioinspired nanomaterials can be synthesized through biomimetic mineralization, where inorganic nanocrystals are grown within organic templates or matrices to achieve controlled size, shape, and orientation.

Applications of Bioinspired Nanomaterials

Bioinspired nanomaterials have a wide range of potential applications across various fields:
  • Biomedicine: Bioinspired nanomaterials can be used for drug delivery, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, and biosensing. For example, bioinspired nanocarriers can mimic the structure and function of natural vesicles for targeted drug delivery, while bioinspired scaffolds can guide tissue regeneration and promote cell growth.
  • Energy: Bioinspired nanomaterials can enhance the performance of energy conversion and storage devices, such as solar cells, batteries, and fuel cells. For instance, bioinspired light-harvesting nanomaterials can mimic the efficient energy transfer processes in photosynthetic systems, while bioinspired electrode materials can improve the capacity and stability of batteries.
  • Environmental Remediation: Bioinspired nanomaterials can be used for water purification, air filtration, and oil spill cleanup. For example, bioinspired membranes with selective permeability can remove contaminants from water, while bioinspired absorbents can efficiently capture oil and other pollutants.
  • Sensors and Devices: Bioinspired nanomaterials can enable the development of highly sensitive and selective sensors for chemical and biological detection. For instance, bioinspired plasmonic nanostructures can enhance the sensitivity of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) for molecular sensing, while bioinspired wettability patterns can enable the creation of microfluidic devices for point-of-care diagnostics.

Challenges and Future Perspectives

Despite the significant progress in bioinspired nanomaterials, several challenges remain to be addressed. One of the main challenges is the scalability and reproducibility of bioinspired nanomaterials, as many of the synthesis and fabrication methods are still limited to small-scale laboratory settings. The development of cost-effective and large-scale production methods is crucial for the widespread application of bioinspired nanomaterials.
Another challenge lies in the complexity and diversity of biological systems, which often involve multiple levels of hierarchy and intricate molecular interactions. Understanding and replicating these complex biological mechanisms in synthetic nanomaterials requires interdisciplinary collaborations across fields such as biology, chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology.
Future research in bioinspired nanomaterials will focus on the development of novel bioinspired designs, the integration of multiple biological functions within a single material, and the exploration of new applications in areas such as personalized medicine, smart textiles, and soft robotics. The convergence of bioinspired nanomaterials with other emerging technologies, such as 3D bioprinting, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT), will open up new opportunities for creating intelligent, adaptive, and responsive materials and systems.

Further Reading

Accounts of Chemical Research, Bioinspired and Biomimetic Nanomedicines