December 7, 2023

New Material Made of Live Glowing Algae Could Revolutionize Stress Sensors

A team of scientists from the University of California – San Diego has developed a groundbreaking material that could revolutionize stress sensors in various applications. The material, composed of a seaweed-based polymer called alginate and live single-celled algae known as dinoflagellates, is capable of emitting light when subjected to mechanical stress.

The use of stress sensors is crucial in industries where monitoring mechanical stress is essential, such as in machines, buildings, and aircraft. With the invention of this new material, inspection personnel can easily identify components undergoing stress by simply observing the brightness of the glowing algae integrated into the material.

Dinoflagellates, which naturally produce flashes of light in the ocean to deter predators, were combined with alginate and a polymer called poly(ethylene glycol) diacrylate to enhance the material’s ability to withstand heavy loads. In small 3D-printed structures made from this material, the dinoflagellates emit light proportional to the amount of mechanical stress applied – the brighter the glow, the greater the stress.

One of the significant advantages of this material is that it does not require any power source or electronics to function as a stress sensor. However, the dinoflagellates need regular cycles of light exposure and darkness for photosynthesis, which powers their bioluminescence in the dark. Despite this requirement, the 3D-printed structures made from the material have shown promising performance for about five months with minimal maintenance, even in harsh conditions.

In addition to stress sensors, the potential applications for this novel material are vast. It could be utilized in soft-bodied robots, where its sensitivity to mechanical stimuli could enhance their functionality. Moreover, medical implants could also benefit from this material, as light signals could be used to trigger drug release or perform treatments.

“This current work demonstrates a simple method to combine living organisms with non-living components to fabricate novel materials that are self-sustaining and sensitive to fundamental mechanical stimuli found in nature,” said Chenghai Li, a PhD candidate working in the lab of the study’s senior author, Prof. Shengqiang Cai.

The development of this material opens up exciting possibilities in the field of stress sensors and beyond. With further research and development, it could potentially revolutionize various industries and contribute to advancements in biotechnology and healthcare. The integration of live organisms with synthetic materials is a testament to the ingenuity and innovation of scientists in pushing the boundaries of what is possible. As technology continues to advance, it is clear that nature often holds the key to solving complex problems and inspiring groundbreaking solutions.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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