Their amazing, miraculous, seemingly “impossible” abilities are set to completely transform computing. Scientists are hoping to harness the ability of tardigrades to develop their protective, glassy cocoons and apply it to the computing, pharmaceutical and food industries.
The microscopic animals known as water bears, moss piglets, or their more formal name – tardigrades, are one of the oddest creatures on the planet. They are humble yet miraculous creatures. They possess the remarkable ability to withstand extreme environments of hot and cold and huge amounts of radiation. They can even survive the vacuum of space. In 2007, thousands of tardigrades were attached to a satellite and blasted into space. After the satellite had returned to Earth, scientists examined them and found that many of them had survived. Some of the females had even laid eggs in space, and the newly-hatched young were healthy. They can return from the dead, as demonstrated when scientists dry them out and then device them with water years later. That amazing ability was what piqued the interest of Professor Juan de Pablo, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago.
“When you remove the water, they very quickly coat themselves in large amounts of glassy molecules,” de Pablo explained. “That’s how they stay in this state of suspended animation.” And further research reveals has found molecular order in a material thought to be entirely amorphous and random. ‘These are intriguing materials. They have the structure of a liquid, and yet they’re solids. They’re found everywhere, and we still do not understand how this process of turning from a liquid into a solid occurs,’ said de Pablo.
Now, researchers studying them believe they have created a new type of “superglass” that could change computing forever. Their results potentially offer a simple way to improve the efficiency of electronic devices such as light-emitting diodes, optical fibers, and solar cells. They also could have important theoretical implications for understanding the still surprisingly mysterious materials called glasses.
The researchers were stunned by the molecular order that they found. “Randomness is almost the defining feature of glasses,” de Pablo said. “At least we used to think so. What we have done is to demonstrate that one can create glasses where there is some well-defined organization. And now that we understand the origin of such effects, we can try to control that organization by manipulating the way we prepare these glasses.”
In a paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, de Pablo and five co-authors from UChicago, Wisconsin, and France show how the vapor-deposition process can create new glassy materials by manipulating their molecular orientation. Using vapor deposition, Wisconsin’s Mark Ediger and his team create glasses in a vacuum chamber by heating a sample material, which vaporizes, condenses, and grows atop an experimental surface.
The ability of tardigrades to develop their protective, glassy cocoons could have many practical applications, within the computing, pharmaceutical and food industries. Making all of this research possible was funding from the Materials Genome Initiative, which President Obama launched in 2011. The multi-agency initiative seeks to help researchers develop new materials twice as fast and at a fraction of the cost as was previously possible.