Photo of a spiderweb

Case Western Reserve researcher wins $5.5 million federal grant to develop bioinspired materials and systems

With a new $5.5 million, five-year federal grant, a Case Western Reserve University researcher is leading an international team to develop functional materials inspired by some of the most desirable substances found in nature.

The bioinspired materials produced in the project will be tested in soft-sided robots, but are expected to have a wide range of practical uses.

Faculty and students from Case Western Reserve, the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and the University of Chicago will study and develop materials that mimic such material as sticky and durable caddisfly silk, the adaptable skin of a sea cucumber and a substance that directs cellular behavior.

The grant, awarded Sept. 1 by the National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education program, will allow students from Switzerland to work in CWRU and University of Chicago labs and for students from those universities to work in the overseas labs. Cleveland-area high school students will work on the project with Swiss and U.S. students during the summer.

The research and training activities in Switzerland will be supported with a $1.5 million (Swiss franc) grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

In all, 12 faculty members from Case Western Reserve, two from Chicago, six from Fribourg and 15 PhD students will contribute to the program.

Nature’s treasures

Materials used in this project will be tested in a worm-like robot that may one day burrow through the earth or building wreckage on search-and rescue-missions, crawl inside waterlines and oil and gas pipelines to inspect them and, if miniaturized, deliver a stent or remove plaque by crawling through a blood vessel.

Photo of LaShanda Korley
LaShanda Korley

“We’re studying materials and objects found in nature, then reducing the materials for practical use,” said LaShanda Korley, Climo Associate Professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve and principal investigator on the project, which is scheduled to start this month.

Co-principal investigators are Jon Pokorski, assistant professor of macromolecular science and engineering, and Gary Wnek, the Joseph F. Toot Jr. Professor of Engineering and professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve; and Stuart Rowan, professor of molecular engineering and chemistry at the University of Chicago.

The Swiss team is led by Christoph Weder, professor of polymer chemistry and materials and director of the Adolphe Merkle Institute and the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Bio-Inspired Materials.

“The research beautifully combines the scientific competences of the U.S. and Swiss groups, and the exchange programs provide unique training opportunities for the students,” said Weder, a former professor of polymer science at Case Western Reserve.

The research focuses on five areas:

  • Korley, Rowan, and AMI’s Nico Bruns, professor of macromolecular chemistry, and Ulrich Steiner, professor of soft matter physics, lead the effort to develop nanocomposite materials.

    The materials will be based on spider silk, which, by weight and size, is far stronger than steel cables. They will also be based on caddisfly silk, a powerful and durable adhesive that underwater larvae use to build nets to capture food and glue together pebbles, shells and sticks for shelters.

  • Jeffrey Capadona, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, Rowan and Weder lead the study of materials inspired by the sea cucumber, squid beak, and pine cone, which would allow the robot to adapt to different environments and tasks.Photo of a sea cucumber

    The sea cucumber’s skin is typically soft and pliable, but can become rigid as a defense mechanism against predators. The tip of the squid beak can cut through muscle and bone, but the fleshy part near the squid’s mouth is 100 times softer. The pinecone opens in dry air and closes when wet.

  • Wnek and Michael Mayer, AMI professor of biophysics, lead the effort to build artificial neurons to control a robot. They and other collaborators will investigate the use polyelectrolyte fibers and gels that can carry an electric current or respond to magnetic fields.
  • Pokorski, Alke Fink and Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser, professors of bionanomaterials at AMI, lead the development of mechanically adaptable functional fibers. They aim to mimic the extracellular matrix’s ability to provide adaptive structural and biochemical support to cells, enabling surrounding cells to differentiate or migrate to heal wounds.
  • Case Western Reserve’s Roger Quinn, the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Hillel Chiel, professor of biology, lead testing and coordinating the materials and controls in the worm robot.

The AMI investigators are all members of Switzerland’s National Center of Competence in Research Bio-Inspired Materials, an interdisciplinary hub for research, innovation and education in the domain of “smart” materials whose function and design are inspired by nature.

Great Lakes Biomimicry, a nonprofit that supports innovation through biomimicry in Northeast Ohio, is also a partner in the project. Kent State University’s Research and Evaluation bureau will assess the educational activities.

For more information, contact Bill Lubinger at