Story originally posted to the Amherst Wire on Nov. 18, 2013
By Alexandra Lane
Within their respective labs and offices on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, Duncan Irschick, a professor of biology, and Al Crosby, a professor of polymer science and engineering, have been quietly creating.
The pair, along with a team of graduate and postdoctoral students, developed a material that has taken the science world by storm and is one they hope will revolutionize the adhesive world. This material, deemed “Geckskin,” has the thickness of a credit card and the pliability of soft rubber. It can stick to any smooth surface and a piece of just four square inches can hold up to 700 pounds. With its reusable quality, ability to assume heavy loads, and use of dry adhesion, the product will be usable in everyday scenarios as well as in the health and industry sectors. Earlier this year, team Geckskin was named by CNN Money as one of the top five science breakthroughs of 2012.
The inspiration for this new technology: gecko toes.
Geckskin, as the name suggests, is inspired by the biological anatomy of geckos. By borrowing the technology that geckos use to cling to surfaces at most any angle, and remove themselves without leaving behind any sticky residue, Geckskin is a new kind of adhesive.
The test subjects for the team’s research can be found in the back corner on the second floor of the Morrill Science Center, which is one of the campus’s notoriously labyrinth-like buildings. Irschick’s lab, now home to more than two dozen geckos, is quiet, except for the constant chirping of crickets. Terrestrial tanks, each containing one oblivious gecko, sit side by side on metal shelving racks along the wall. Irschick’s personal office is found just adjacent to the homes of his smaller partners of innovation.
Irschick began studying the geckos and their adhesive qualities as an undergraduate at the University of California at Davis. He approaches project Geckskin from a biological standpoint. Early on, he was intrigued by the biological makeup of geckos. Today, using the geckos to test their theories, the Geckskin team has been able to anatomically link geckos to the study of adhesion.
“Geckskin is a device, or material, that is modeled closely off of a gecko’s foot,” Irschick said. “Geckos essentially have tendons that go from their bone into their skin… This unusual arrangement really turned out to be the key to Geckskin. Geckskin really relies on three key parts: a very stiff tendon, a skin, which is essentially like gecko skin, and a soft pad.”
Crosby, who has a doctorate in adhesion, said he is able to bring in the “understanding of the mechanics and materials of how adhesion works from a chemical, physical and engineering point of view.”
Through their combination of biological and polymer sciences, the team has developed an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of heavy-duty, reusable, sustainable adhesives.
This project was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and has brought the team great recognition in the past year throughout the science community and beyond. From investors to potential carriers of the product, the scientists have been fielding inquiries from a number of different sectors.
“Since the publication of [the first Geckskin] paper [in February 2012], my life has taken a big shift,” Irschick said.
In addition, Crosby and Irschick have received scholarships, grants and awards to encourage future research.
The interdisciplinary nature of the research being done on Geckskin is one of the main reasons that both Irschick and Crosby work at UMass.
“Being able to work with a vast array of disciplines allows new and different perspectives,” Crosby said. Irschick echoed Crosby and said: “If you think about all the ideas that created Geckskin, that’s the kind of ideas that were borrowed from many different disciplines.”
The idea of Geckskin, judging from the number of people interested in the product, has already proven to be a marketable product. Both Irschick and Crosby are excited about the product’s potential, not only as a household adhesive, but also as a sustainable option. The sustainability of Geckskin is something that sets it apart from its competitors, which offer products that are not reusable.
Crosby argues that with further development, Geckskin should be a viable and sustainable adhesive. “The idea behind Geckskin is that you can reposition and reuse it over and over again. So I think that’s a really big advantage. And we have learned enough that we can actually make it from sustainable materials,” Crosby said.
The team’s understanding of fundamental science has allowed development of the product with everyday materials.
This aspect of the everyday material is part of the product’s appeal. “It is going to be completely affordable,” Irschick said. With everyday materials, and a developed construction plan, the price of Geckskin for public consumption should be comparable or less than the prices that consumers pay for similar items. These characteristics also mean that the Geckskin team will be able to market to the average consumer.
“It’s a very simple thing that can be parlayed into a bunch of cool, potential products in the future. It’s a very profound concept, but at the same time, it’s a very simple one. It’s the kind of concept that people can relate to, and kind of sink their teeth into,” Irschick said.
As professors at UMass, they both teach classes in which their research and innovation is applicable to the lesson plan. “It’s fun for students to understand that something that they might look at from a gecko, or some kind of animal, could be used in a human product. They love that, and I think that’s great. That’s inspiration and innovation that we all can relate to,” Irschick said.
In addition, the professors are able to expand their own wealth of knowledge to the other’s focus. Crosby, who loves the fact that he is able to present his first-hand experiences with the gecko to his students, said: “By handling, and watching, and learning from Duncan in his labs, I can now bring that very first-person experience into my class and teach and Duncan can do the same. He doesn’t have to talk about synthetic materials from a second or third-person point of view, he can talk about it from a first-person perspective.”
The duo has learned a lot from each other in the past years of their collaboration. They have also learned a lot more about the world of adhesives, the ways to better it, and the uses for a product like Geckskin. Both Crosby and Irschick have high hopes for their product, but none that appear to be impractical.
Crosby and Irschick share similar goals for Geckskin, as they hope to have it commercialized within the next two years.
Crosby’s son would like to see the product sold in Target stores, and he agrees that it would be “pretty cool to be able to take something from an idea on a whiteboard, or an idea in a lab, and to see it go all the way through. I haven’t done that yet, and I think it would be kind of neat.”
Beyond that, they both would like to see Geckskin have an impact on the way that other technologies are created and shape the way that people view the sciences. Irschick said that in his innovations and development he would like to be able to leave “a better environment, make something that will make people interested in science, and make people interested in innovation in a positive way.”
The Geckskin team is looking to revolutionize how people think about hanging everyday items, and these two professors have spearheaded the innovation of a product that will undoubtedly reshape the adhesive world. And it all started with the toe pads of geckos.