From sea snails to electronic free circuits

Sea snails and sponges are shedding light on how to create electronic-free circuitry and environmentally friendly optical fibre, say Geelong scientists.

The structure of a sea snail’s mother-of-pearl layer suggests how to channel light.

Inspired by the materials these sea creatures make, an Australian-US team is trying to create 3D gold nanoparticle arrays that channel light.

“Effectively we are creating circuitry without electronics,” says Tiffany Walsh, Veski Innovation Fellow and one of the researchers from Deakin University.

Tiffany is harnessing the power of supercomputers at the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative to understand how simple creatures like molluscs are able to make materials far more advanced than we can.

“The nacre (mother-of-pearl) in their shells is made of calcium carbonate, which is essentially just chalk, held together by a small amount of organic glue,” says Tiffany. “Somehow these two very soft materials become something very hard when they’re combined.”

According to Tiffany, the secret seems to be in the way the materials self-organise when mixed, with biological mortar holding together tiny calcium carbonate bricks.

She is taking inspiration from this process to make gold nanoparticles form into three-dimensional arrays, which act as waveguides to channel light.

After simulating the nanoparticles’ interaction with biological molecules on the supercomputer, Tiffany shares and exchanges her findings with American colleagues at the Universities of Buffalo and Miami, who then make the materials.

“Green manufacturing is the dream,” says Tiffany. “If we can find out how they do this, we can create new, high-performance materials in a less expensive way and without hazardous by-products.”

Photo: The structure of a sea snail’s mother-of-pearl layer suggests how to channel light.

Deakin University, Tiffany Walsh, Tel: +61 3 5227 3116,,