Lobster’s underbelly is as tough as industrial rubber

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In Massachusetts, MIT engineers are looking at the lobster’s underbelly where a soft, translucent membrane is found which is remarkably tough, flexible and protective. This flexibility may come from the fact that the membrane is a natural hydrogel, composed of 90 percent of water. Chitin, a fibrous material found in many shells and exoskeletons, makes up most of the rest.

The team’s results show that the lobster membrane is the toughest material of all natural hydrogels, including collagen, animal skins, and natural rubber. The membrane is about as strong as industrial rubber composites, such as those used to make car tires, garden hoses, and conveyor belts. It could serve as a design guide for more flexible body armor, particularly for highly mobile regions of the body, such as elbows and knees.

“We think this work could motivate flexible armor design,” says Ming Guo, the d’Arbeloff Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “If you could make armor out of these types of materials, you could freely move your joints, and it would make you feel more comfortable.”

In addition to flexible body armor, Guo says materials designed to mimic lobster membranes could be useful in soft robotics, as well as tissue engineering.