An Eco-friendly Adhesive That Works Underwater

Mussels have inspired an innovative adhesive that could potentially work underwater.


Professor Jonathan Wilker. Source: Purdue Research Foundation

Mussels have inspired an innovative adhesive that could potentially work underwater. The researchers say their new eco-friendly technology will have huge implications for the medical and construction industries.

The adhesive was developed by Jonathan Wilker, a professor of chemistry and materials engineering at Purdue University. He came up with the concept while studying mussels and other shellfish. The goal was to create adhesives that could bond in wet conditions (examples include underwater construction and human tissue).

Substituting simple polymers

“A lot of the chemistry involved in the animals’ adhesive is protein-based, but no one is going to be able to make a complicated protein for large-scale applications,” he told the university. “So we are substituting simple polymers for the proteins while maintaining other aspects of the adhesive chemistry.”

Wilker added: “We have looked at the design and synthesis changes that we can make and compared our adhesive to what the shellfish are making. The system can be easy to generate on large scales and yet still maintain the functions that we are after. This synthetic mimic approach then allows us to tailor the material for specific bonding situations and applications.”

Uses renewable resources 

Adhesives that work underwater are not necessarily new. However, they tend to use petroleum feedstock and release toxic materials.  Wilker’s adhesive differs in that it can be produced using renewable resources.

“We can design certain characteristics into the adhesive, but we won’t be able to focus on a specific product for a specific application,” he explained. “It’s possible that we could connect with different companies that can develop the materials for several sectors including aeronautical or automotive manufacturing, biomedical joining of tissues, construction, coatings and cosmetics.”

This isn’t the first time researchers have taken a cue from shellfish. Engineers at MIT developed similar adhesives last year. They created bacteria capable of producing a hybrid material, which included mussel proteins. Their findings were released in the Sept. 21 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.