This gecko discovery just might stick

Janet Babin Jan 1, 2009

This gecko discovery just might stick

Janet Babin Jan 1, 2009


STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Sometimes the best new ideas aren’t so much discovered as they are found. Scientists have picked up on that. Using what they’ve found in nature to bring about new products.

This morning, the story of a sticky situation.
From the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Pubic Radio, here’s Janet Babin.

JANET BABIN: The little green gecko in the Geiko commercials — quite the car insurance salesman. But scientist Robert Full says real geckos are much more impressive. We’re in his lab at the University of California at Berkeley. Full takes a foot-long gecko out of its cage. I gasp. So does the gecko.

BABIN: Why is his mouth open like that?

ROBERT FULL: They make this barking noise.

Big mouth, unblinking eyes. I’m already impressed by this lizard. But Dr. Full wants me to check out its toes.

FULL: These toes actually uncurl and peel much like this party favor that when you blow it sort of comes out, [squeaking sound of the common party favor] and peels back, and their toes do that in milliseconds.

Billions of microscopic hairs on gecko toes let them stick like crazy glue to walls and ceilings. But these critters can peel off at will. No man-made adhesive could match the gecko’s grip and easy release. Imagine the commercial applications. Professor Full and Berkeley roboticist Ron Fearing have, and are close to cashing in. They created a reusable adhesive that mimics the gecko’s toes. Fearing demonstrates how his adhesive sticks when it slides along a glass panel, just like a gecko would.

[Sound of tape being pulled off a surface]

BABIN: OK, but, now that sounds like tape, but it’s not. What is making that sound?

RON FEARING: You’re hearing millions and millions of these nano hairs rubbing against each other and vibrating. So, you’re hearing the sound of . . . literally, hearing the sound of nanotechnology.

BABIN: Can you do it again?

[The tape sound again. Then laughter.]

What makes gecko tape so attractive to so many industries is that, just like the lizard, it’s self-cleaning. Fearing uses his robots as an example. Imagine one climbing a wall with duct tape on its feet. The robot would be good for a couple of steps and that’s it.

FEARING: The gecko doesn’t have that problem. It’s got this amazing ability to walk through dirt, and in about a half-dozen steps the dirt will come off and it’ll be sticking again, just about as good as new.

The UC Berkeley team’s work has attracted the attention of dozens of companies that are in the market for sticky stuff. Baseball glove makers. Fashion designers who dream of shoes with no tops. Surgeons, who need to hang on to slippery tissue. David Edwards is chief technology officer at Avery Dennison, the company that makes price tags and labels. Edwards says the company wants to create new products using gecko adhesive.

DAVID EDWARDS: We could imagine it being used in wound-care systems, so Band-Aids, where it would be very, very easy to peel off the skin, almost ouch-less.

Edwards has made some gecko-tape prototypes from plastic. That’s relatively easy to do in a lab. But mass production’s a lot harder.

Edwards: There are billions of these filaments in every square-inch of tape you make. So finding a way to do that very, very quickly, of course, — can’t take all day to do it; it’s no good making a label once a day — is really the challenge.

And it will cost millions in research and development. So, it’s back to the lab for now. Edwards hopes to have the tape on the market in three years. Meanwhile, Avery Dennison’s competitors are working just as hard to put gecko tape on store shelves.

In Berkeley, California, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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