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News Release

What are those hooks and claws in the Research Expo image?

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A 3D-printed model of the bar and barbules inside a bird feather. Photo by David Baillot. 

San Diego, CA, April 3, 2019 -- You may have seen a kid play with a feather, or you may have played with one yourself: Running a hand along a feather’s barbs and watching as the feather unzips and zips, seeming to miraculously pull itself back together.

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The image above is a close-up of a 3D-printed model that shows the mechanism which allows the bird feather to do this “magic trick.” It’s the artwork for the Jacobs School of Engineering’s Research Expo 2019, a showcase of the top engineering and computer science research underway at UC San Diego. Register today to recruit and connect with 200+ graduate students on April 18.

Jacobs School researcher Tarah Sullivan, who earned a PhD in materials science in Marc Meyer’s research group, is using 3D-printed models like this one to better understand the structure and properties of bird feathers. The feathers’ vanes, barbs and barbules could serve as inspiration for an interlocking one-directional adhesive or a material with directionally tailored permeability. In this image, the claw-like tentacles are feather barbules interlocking with one another.

Sullivan is the first in about two decades to take a detailed look at the general structure of bird feathers, without focusing on a specific species. She found that barbules— the smaller, hook-like structures that connect feather barbs— are spaced within 8 to 16 micrometers of one another in all birds, from the hummingbird to the condor. This suggests that the spacing is an important property for flight.

“The first time I saw feather barbules under the microscope I was in awe of their design: intricate, beautiful and functional,” she said. “As we studied feathers across many species it was amazing to find that despite the enormous differences in size of birds, barbules spacing was constant.”

Sullivan believes studying the vane-barb-barbule structure further could lead to the development of new materials for aerospace applications, and to new adhesives—think Velcro and its barbs.

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Professors Ken Loh, Ndapa Nakashole and Liangfang Zhang will share their latest research in industry-focused TED-style talks.

“We believe that these structures could serve as inspiration for an interlocking one-directional adhesive or a material with directionally tailored permeability,” she said.

The graduate student poster abstracts for Research Expo are now live. Browse the nearly 200 abstracts to get a sense of the research on display on April 18. Learn more about this year’s Research Expo faculty TED-talk speakers, who will be sharing their research into anticancer vaccines, natural language for computers, and multifunctional materials for warfighters.

Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering