Science that Sticks

by Kim Moldofsky, The Maker Mom

I was a bit alarmed when I heard that “gecko feet” were included on the recent resupply mission to the International Space Station. Thankfully the gecko feet in question were not the latest good-luck charm or trend in fuzzy slippers, but a nickname for a potentially useful material.

Gecko feet refers to special “non-stick grippers” that are modeled after, yes, the feet of geckos. On Earth, gecko grippers can be used to defy gravity by holding a computer monitor to a wall. On the ISS, the gecko feet will defy microgravity and help hold items in place as they cling to surfaces.

NASA innovations have sticking power

We benefit from NASA research every day, or night, as the case may be if you sleep on a mattress softened by memory foam. The scientists and engineers at NASA also brought us improved artificial limbs, scratch-resistant plastic lenses, infrared ear thermometers, cordless tools, and freeze-dried food. The interactive site, Explore NASA@Home, provides an engaging way to learn how Space-age technology now plays a role in everyday life.

Back to those geckos

Technically, gecko feet don’t stick to surfaces. Their extremities are not covered with millions of little suction cups. Instead, they are covered in very fine hairs called setae. Take a look. Each seta (singular) contains even more split ends known as spatulae. As these nano-hairs brush against surfaces, they create intermolecular forces called Van der Waals forces. These forces are “the residual attractive or repulsive forces between molecules or atomic groups that do not arise from a covalent bond, or electrostatic interaction of ions or of ionic groups.” These attractions don’t have much individual strength, but given the vast surface area of this dense network of setae, the gecko can cling to things.

Geckos can climb vertical surfaces thanks to molecular forces. How cool is that?

It turns that gecko feet have been a hot subject of exploration in recent years. Students who fancy themselves Spiderman or Spiderwoman will want to read up on GeckSkin™, a product being developed at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

Biomimicry

Humans have much to learn from the study of other animals. Biomimicry is the study of systems and elements in nature for the purpose of using that knowledge to solve human problems. It’s another exciting area of research. Biomimicry involves more than simply copying nature, though. It seeks to understand evolutionary forces, to dig deep into the systems and processes that shape the natural world. Learn more about biomimicry in this 11-minute overview.  

Geckos can serve as a sticking point for more scientific exploration. Challenge the young scientists in your classroom to turn what they know about geckos into an award winning research project. And hurry, the deadline for the 2016 Young Scientist Competition is rapidly approaching.