Your next iPhone could be built with tools inspired by ant teeth

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Ants have a secret when it comes to their overwhelmingly strong teeth, one that could help us develop human technology.

Adisak Mitrprayoon / Getty Images

In order for consumer electronics to shrink, engineers have to build tiny but enormously powerful instruments that are used in the construction of the devices. One group hopes to obtain blueprints from Mother Nature by studying some of the smallest and toughest tools we know: ant teeth.

Thinner than a strand of human hair, the miniature insect crushers can bite hard enough to cut through sturdy leaves without being damaged. It all has to do with the even arrangement of the zinc atoms on the teeth, which allows for an even distribution of force every time the creatures grind something. This feature, researchers say, may one day be applied to man-made tools.

“The even distribution is essentially the secret,” said Arun Devaraj, senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and author of a study of ant teeth composition published Wednesday in Scientific Reports. The ant-eaters “can even cut human skin without breaking – this is difficult to do with our own teeth.”

In order to get to the bottom of nature’s secrets and meet mankind’s need for pocket-sized electronics – so that we can of course conveniently check our Twitter feeds – the researchers first isolated a tiny piece of a single ant tooth. Ants have two or sometimes more teeth on their curved outer lower jaw or jaw. Then the team turned to a technique called atom probe tomography, which paints a picture of exactly where each atom is within an object.

“The plan,” said Devaraj, “was to use this technique to really understand how zinc is distributed in these ant teeth and how that leads to the strength it gets.”

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Ant mandibles have a powerful bite thanks to embedded zinc atoms.

Robert Schofield / University of Oregon

Atom probe tomography works by reverse analysis. Basically, you can put an object in a chamber, then let it slowly evaporate – atom by atom – and collect the data of each component on a detector. With this information you can then reconstruct the object as a 3D model, but this time with identifiable atoms.

After following these steps with a microscopic “needle” from an ant nibbler, the team found that the tooth’s zinc atoms – which are responsible for the stinging, painful nature of ant bites – were surprisingly even and not distributed in clumps.

Every time an ant bites something, the force is perfectly distributed to its teeth due to the even distribution of zinc atoms. This explains why only about 10-20% zinc is actually required for their powerful tooth material. Better still, the researchers say that the animals end up using about 60% or less of the force than they would need if their teeth were identical to our comparatively weak pearly white teeth, which have different types and distributions of elements.

“Organic and inorganic chemists can actually work together to synthesize materials that are really strong, inspired by those materials,” said Devaraj.

Applying the concept of evenly distributed atoms – zinc or other elements – to instruments built on human technology would offer a dual benefit to our future mini-tools. They would be cheaper because less expensive, stronger components would be required. They would also be more efficient as less force would be required to use.

Next, Devaraj and other researchers are trying to find ways to revolutionize the way we construct compact technical devices by analyzing other tiny species that roam with powerful weapons.

“We’ve looked at scorpion stings and the spider’s tooth, for example,” said Devaraj, “and many other types of miniature tools to understand the nature of the insect’s small arsenals of tools.”


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