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Science

The Squid's Beak May Revolutionize Engineering 79

Posted by kdawson
from the fortuitous-gradient dept.
Ace905 writes "For years the razor-sharp beak that squid use to eat their prey has posed a puzzle to scientists. Squid are soft and fragile, but have a beak as dense as rock and sharp enough to break through hard shells. Scientists have long wondered why the beak doesn't injure the squid itself as is uses it. New research has just been published in the the journal Science that explains the phenomenon. One of the researchers described the squid beak as 'like placing an X-Acto blade in a block of fairly firm Jell-O and then trying to use it to chop celery.' Careful examination shows that the beak is formed in a gradient of density, becoming harder towards the tip end. Understanding how to make such hardness gradients could revolutionize engineering anywhere that 'interfaces between soft and hard materials [are required].' One of the first applications researchers envision is prosthetic limbs."
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The Squid's Beak May Revolutionize Engineering

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  • Beaks are neat (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RockModeNick (617483) on Saturday March 29, 2008 @06:54PM (#22908186)
    Puffer fish also have a shell-crushing beak attached to a relatively soft base, but they have the advantage of a jaw bone(thought they lack skeletal structures like ribs) to propel it. It still always amazed me how they managed to have such soft lips and skin and yet chew apart snails and other hard shelled foods so fast.
  • by Lordfly (590616) on Saturday March 29, 2008 @07:03PM (#22908212) Homepage Journal
    A front page article with no comments? Really? ...are you all having sex or something?
  • What is going on? Squid are awesome and this is an interesting discovery... two comments?

    Realistically I don't know if this is so "revolutionary", though - it's great for the squid, sure, but the revolutionary part will be figuring out how to actually engineer stuff like this.

    It sounds simple and obvious enough, but thinking about how to create materials that behave like this one realizes the challenges involved (not that I am a materials engineer and know anything about it.)
    • Darn right it sounds obvious enough, how haven't they known this before? You'd easily be able to tell by just pushing your fingernail into it at different positions down its length....
      • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Darn right it sounds obvious enough, how haven't they known this before? You'd easily be able to tell by just pushing your fingernail into it at different positions down its length....

        Arr, me tried that one me laddy, got me fingernail halfway down its beak before the beastie chomped off me hand and squirmed into the ocean.
    • It sounds simple and obvious enough, but thinking about how to create materials that behave like this one realizes the challenges involved (not that I am a materials engineer and know anything about it.)

      Forget synthesising the process, I think we all know where this is headed: Squid farming. Why figure out how to do it when nature has provided us with the goods, handily attached to a tasty snack.

      OK, so there may be a few disappointed faces when people get a prosthetic beak instead of a hand. But I'm sure they'll come around to the idea when they think about it a little bit and realise that beaks are awesome.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by lilomar (1072448)

        But I'm sure they'll come around to the idea when they think about it a little bit and realise that beaks are awesome.
        My only question is how far up my arm do I have to chop the hand off to qualify for this? I would like to keep my elbow, but if that is the cost of being the first human with a squid-beak hand, I can make sacrifices.
        • by DavidV (167283)

          My only question is how far up my arm do I have to chop the hand off to qualify for this? I would like to keep my elbow,


          I got what you want done, you can just get drunk and take a shortcut through a 33kV substation, not for the faint hearted though, I'd recommend against it.
          • by DavidV (167283)

            My only question is how far up my arm do I have to chop the hand off to qualify for this? I would like to keep my elbow,


            I got what you want done, you can just get drunk and take a shortcut through a 33kV substation, not for the faint hearted though, I'd recommend against it.
            Damn, missed out on a Darwin Award!
        • by mstahl (701501)

          Best barely on-topic /. thread ever. Congrats!

      • by Thing 1 (178996)

        But I'm sure they'll come around to the idea when they think about it a little bit and realise that beaks are awesome.

        "I've got pretty nice arms, but I hate my beak."

        (I love when Jonathan Coulton is topical. :)

    • by Naughty Bob (1004174) * on Saturday March 29, 2008 @10:37PM (#22909294)

      Realistically I don't know if this is so "revolutionary"
      Are you so bold as to question the editorial integrity of /.?

      No, as the headline says, the entire field of Engineering will never be the same.
    • by Bombula (670389)
      This is indeed interesting, but I'd have to see a squid in the lab to be completely convinced there isn't a simpler explanation at work as well. The analogy of holding a razor blade with jello and using it to chop is cute, but it's only meaningful if the razor blade is sharp on both sides. Is the squid beak sharp both on the cutting edge AND where it is secured in the squid's soft tissue? Scissors (or pliers or chopsticks for that matter) don't slice open the soft pads our our fingertips not because we h
  • "Frank Zok, professor and associate chair of the department of materials, said he had always been skeptical of whether there is any real advantage to materials that change their properties gradually from one part to another..."
    Hmmm, maybe like a sword blade FFS!
  • Now if only they can figure out why the "lobster sticks to magnet!" and LOBSTER HAS A BEAK! (if you dunno what that's from, don't hate. Trust me, it's funny)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 29, 2008 @08:53PM (#22908806)
    Basically the article says something about a hardness gradient across the material is why the beak doesn't damage the squid itself. Then they say something about how this idea can be applied to manmade materials. Even that idea isn't entirely new anyways among manmade materials. The traditional samurai sword is forged in such a way that the edge is tempered and hardened to hold razor sharpness, yet the bulk of the blade is not hardened so that it doesn't shatter upon impact.
    • by dyaimz (258080)
      ditto!
    • by I Like Pudding (323363) on Saturday March 29, 2008 @10:14PM (#22909192)
      That's not a gradient. It's a binary transition from martensite to pearlite [wikipedia.org]. Still, I agree that the idea is not exactly earth-shattering. In fact, my kneejerk reaction was "duh".
      • by RockModeNick (617483) on Sunday March 30, 2008 @04:17AM (#22910302)
        Thats the trouble with traditional Japanese differential hardening, the difference in hardnesses is slightly too great. The edges, while they hold a razor edge well when cutting softer targets, are more prone to chipping than is pleasant, and the bulk of the blade is pearlite, which while shatterproof, does not spring well enough; it's very prone to taking bends rather than snapping back into place like a spring. Don't think I'm calling the process bad or inferior, it's just different than other solutions and has its own set of problems.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        I'm not really familiar with swords but I know a little bit about steel. The Wikipedia description didn't make that much sense to me possibly because it's so brief.

        Martensite and pearlite aren't two mutually exclusive phases as such. Pearlite is a combination of ferrite and cementite. Ferrite is alpha-iron, a particular crystal form of pure iron, and cementite is iron carbide Fe3C. So pearlite itself is actually two phases interspersed. In plain carbon steel, pearlite forms from eutectic (.77% carbon) aus

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dbIII (701233)
      The sword example is really just about a mixture. You have areas of soft stuff and areas of hard stuff to get properties between the two extremes for the whole. The tricky details are you have exclusively hard stuff on the cutting edge and exclusively soft stuff on the back edge - but the majority of it is just a lot of different layers of stuff that would be too hard or too soft to be useful on their own. A modern parallel is fibreglass - hard glass mixed in with soft plastic gives you something resonab
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by RockModeNick (617483)
        While forming the base steel of a sword is often done by folding overhard and oversoft steel together as you describe, differentially carburized sword blades work in a similar way to case hardened materials with a gradient of hardness as you move into the material from the outside, leaving the edges, where extra carbon seeps in from both sides, very hard, the surface of the blade very hard, but the core like a spring. This is one of the last processes that can be used before harding a sword blade, and only
        • That is something completely different. Case hardening requires a lot of diffusion which requires a lot of time at temperature and you do not want much of that in this case or you end up getting rid of the nice structures that make the thing hard while tough (springy) in the first place.

          In the sword you have Wootz with a whole lot of really small hard metal carbides making it strong and you have soft Ferrite making it tough. Think of Tungsten Carbide and Silicon Carbide - the other metal carbides are almo

          • Case hardening does require high temperature, extended immersion, and anoxic heating environment, but differential carburization isn't the same thing. It can be done in an open forge with only a charcoal fire, if the smith is knowledgeable enough, and a bar of pure iron can be turned into a bar of sword hardness steel in under ONE hour if the smith knows his stuff, without burning or damaging the steel structure in any way. The hardness gradient which occurs is similar between the processes, but they are n
            • by dbIII (701233)
              A couple of independant concepts are being mixed up here. I thought I stated it simply but I'll try again - you have the hard material (wootz) and the soft material (ferrite) and you bring them together and fold them over many times to make thin layers.

              Now for something different. Case hardening is the most widely known form of carburization (and you can do it with a charcoal fire - in fact you can get a charcoal fire too hot for this) so that is why I used it as an example. Mixing the two methods togeth

              • I'm pretty positive either you are mixing up how wootz is made and pattern welding, or I'm the one not being clear in what I'm talking about. I'm saying steel is not a mix of wootz and ferrite, and that you don't pattern weld with wootz and pure iron. Wootz is a type of steel with precipitated carbides, but these carbides themselves are not wootz, nor is steel without carbide precipitation wootz. Folding steel billets together creates steel with an averaged set of characteristics based on the input steel
                • by dbIII (701233)
                  Wootz is used as one of the two parts for pattern welding :) It is a very high carbon steel to the point of being too brittle to be useful on it's own and contains a lot of useful impurities from it's ore. You can't make it anymore becuase the ore was mined out but similar things can be made by adding other ingredients to molten metal - something people couldn't easily do long ago - they had to use the best ore they could find instead. Pattern welding is very rarely used now because the point was to take
                  • We seem to be on the same page with pattern welds, but I think you misunderstand wootz. It's not overly hard, or brittle. The process for making wootz prevents cementite from forming brittle sheets by keeping it from forming a lattice; wootz on it's own is actually VERY flexible with proper heat treat. I've owned blades made from pure wootz, they aren't at all brittle. Wootz doesn't even have to be hypereutecoid, carbides can be precipitated in lower carbon steels(I believe down to about .75%, but my me
                    • by dbIII (701233)
                      It's so famous there's even a wiki page on wootz now which is a good starting point until I have time to find some links. What I am calling wootz is specificly the stuff from India long ago that is specificly in the pattern welded material. I really don't know what people in the the blade making community are calling wootz for marketing reasons but only from a metallurgical viewpoint. What they are calling Wootz was not in the old pattern welded blades that I am talking about. I'll see if something's on
                    • Reading slightly out of date material would definately explain the confusion, the old blades were once thought to be pattern welded as you described, but recent research has show they are homogeneous in hardness, unlike true pattern welds, and that they are made from a single button of steel, rather than from welding different steels together. This is a fairly recent discovery, most older texts refer to pattern welded damascus and wootz damascus as the same material or indicate pattern welding as a part of
                    • Fantastic posts! I'd never heard of that gold alloy example before.
                    • It's a shame it's basically totally offtopic, LOL. It's a very rare example, which very few people have seen, and easy to mistake for plated on superficial examination - however, once you see the carbide bands, it's clearly MUCH more than the simple goldplated show blade it appears to be. It makes me wonder if other strange metals could be "impossibly" alloyed under the right conditions.
                    • by dbIII (701233)
                      I'm talking about the material as known as Wootz. You are talking about end products made from stuff that resembles wootz as a portion of their make up.

                      If you define wootz as steel that has visible carbide banding

                      No - I'm talking about the stuff from India in antiquity as per the used definition and not a the very wide range of steels that show banding. Since I brought it up in the discussion you have to live with that one and not make up a new one :) I'm beginning to regret that I named the hard materi

                    • by dbIII (701233)
                      Technically it is not an alloy but a mixture stuck together, just like fibreglass, but it really doesn't matter because you get properties of both. I worked with somebody that made an iron-pvc composite and I've made a copper-alumina (aluminium oxide ceramic) composite myself when I was still an undergradute. The secret in both cases was to mix powder of the two materials together and hit it with a very fast impact to stick the powder together. Something that is really just a big air rifle with a 1 inch
                    • I think we're agreed on pattern welding, I'm just not sure what you mean by wootz, do you take the historic examples only as authentic, modern materials that match in properties the ancient materials as well, or (clearly not this one from what I have read) any material with carbides which precipitate? Wootz does indeed have lots of strange bullshit surrounding it, and none of the classically recognized weapons used as historic examples were pattern welded, and I fully differential carburization is nothing
                    • by dbIII (701233)
                      I think the things made now that call themselves that are not the same. Indian metallurgists are very proud of their Wootz and put papers out every now and again describing something that added to the strength - they've found a few different metal carbides that nobody expected that way - paticularly Vanadium, Nickel and Titanium (Titanium Carbide is the gold coloured stuff on industrial cutting tools). The really big deal about Wootz is it is such a horrible material for that purpose (it's a far too britt
                    • I think you mean titanium nitride - thats what they coat tools with. Similar composition, just nitrogen instead of carbon. Still a very hard, brittle material. And of course the good table saw blades have had tungsten carbide tips for a long time now. I understand perfectly well how composite materials work, but that isn't really how a squid beak(to stumble somehow back on topic) works; a squid beak works on a gradient from tip to base, and I had personally found the wootz discussion much more interesti
    • by fuego451 (958976)

      The traditional samurai sword..

      I had a different 'sword' in mind.

      Understanding how to make such hardness gradients could revolutionize engineering anywhere that 'interfaces between soft and hard materials [are required].'
      I've always wanted to tell a woman, "I've got twelve inches but I don't use it as a rule."?
  • are they going to Patent this?
  • All this from evolution. Who would have though it was smarter than us?
    • All this from intelligent design. Who would have thought that after the FSM took all that trouble to design an animal with all of these noodly appendages, we focus on the damn thing's beak?
    • not really smarter. nature seems pretty stupid, given how much time it needs to achieve such technical progress.
  • Prostheses (Score:3, Funny)

    by tygerstripes (832644) on Sunday March 30, 2008 @03:47AM (#22910232)

    One of the first applications researchers envision is prosthetic limbs.
    Prosthetic beaks? Seriously?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Culture20 (968837)

      Prosthetic beaks? Seriously?
      Haven't you ever wanted to bite into a nautilus just like an apple? Mmm, nautilus.
    • by Tablizer (95088)
      Prosthetic beaks? Seriously?

      I needed that during the dot-com bust to fend off teens attacking my Bucket-O-Chicken mascot suit near the street corner. Had to pay the bills...
           
  • "The best thing since the Squid's Beak!"
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Using B to get from A to C is an engineering revolution?

    How the hell did we ever get into space?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ScrewMaster (602015)
      Using B to get from A to C is an engineering revolution?

      How the hell did we ever get into space?


      I think it's because we used numbers instead of letters.
  • Applications (Score:1, Insightful)

    by dbbd (837458)
    I wonder if these type of gradient based material could be used for artificial teeth. Today teeth implants are embedded into the jaw bones, but many times the bone thickness is not enough. If instead gum-hardness material could be interfacing the gum, yet be hard on the surface it could be a very good replacement for bridges.
    • by Grishnakh (216268)
      Normal teeth work by being embedded into the jaw bones. So if jaw bones aren't thick enough for tooth implants sometimes, why not find a way to improve the jaw bone thickness so that everything works like in an unaltered human body? Gums aren't meant for enduring any pressure; they're just there to protect the tooth roots.

      Heck, in an extreme case, the whole lower jaw could be replaced with an artificial one.
  • Does their beak work on the same principle? Does a ce-beaked squid grow it back like a missing fingernail?

  • This would seem to have general application. Fillings break away from teeth, taking part of the tooth with them, due to the strong bond and lack of gradation in hardness between filling and tooth. Blue LEDs were burning out at the junction until material scientists could develop a gradation of doping, spreading the load of charge across the the junction. Perhaps we could make more durable things (even abstract things) through applying a theory of gradation. I'm not an engineer though, maybe this is already

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