Biomimetics could adapt gripping power of feather shaft

New research into the structure of birds' feathers could provide a breakthrough in the development of materials used in construction.

The groundbreaking research, carried out by the University of Reading with colleagues in South Africa, investigated how feathers are constructed and, and in particular the keratin fibres within the main feather shaft. Feather keratin is an extremely tough material, which is very similar to the major constituent in hair, nails and hooves. The team used funghi to degrade material surrounding the fibres, allowing their structure to be seen for the first time.

The research revealed tiny hooks that act in a very similar way to the reinforcement bars in concrete structures. However, unlike the reinforcement bars, the hooks have extra gripping power to prevent damage to the feather shaft which could be replicated in engineering technology.

Dr Richard Bonser, lecturer in biomimetics in the School of Construction Management and Engineering, said: “Biomimetics is all about using good design in nature and developing new products. Our findings show that there is real potential to take the feather hook design and adapt it for use in engineered materials, and in particular to develop composite materials that are much tougher and have stronger bonding powers. This is a great example of nature knowing best!”