Abiotic tooth enamel

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Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics


© 2017 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved. Tooth enamel comprises parallel microscale and nanoscale ceramic columns or prisms interlaced with a soft protein matrix. This structural motif is unusually consistent across all species from all geological eras. Such invariability - especially when juxtaposed with the diversity of other tissues - suggests the existence of a functional basis. Here we performed ex vivo replication of enamel-inspired columnar nanocomposites by sequential growth of zinc oxide nanowire carpets followed by layer-by-layer deposition of a polymeric matrix around these. We show that the mechanical properties of these nanocomposites, including hardness, are comparable to those of enamel despite the nanocomposites having a smaller hard-phase content. Our abiotic enamels have viscoelastic figures of merit (VFOM) and weight-adjusted VFOM that are similar to, or higher than, those of natural tooth enamels - we achieve values that exceed the traditional materials limits of 0.6 and 0.8, respectively. VFOM values describe resistance to vibrational damage, and our columnar composites demonstrate that light-weight materials of unusually high resistance to structural damage from shocks, environmental vibrations and oscillatory stress can be made using biomimetic design. The previously inaccessible combinations of high stiffness, damping and light weight that we achieve in these layer-by-layer composites are attributed to efficient energy dissipation in the interfacial portion of the organic phase. The in vivo contribution of this interfacial portion to macroscale deformations along the tooth's normal is maximized when the architecture is columnar, suggesting an evolutionary advantage of the columnar motif in the enamel of living species. We expect our findings to apply to all columnar composites and to lead to the development of high-performance load-bearing materials.

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