POSTECH LabCumentary Dong Soo Hwang (Division of Environmental Science and Engineering)
Laboratory for Biological, Bio...
Laboratory for Biological, Biomimetic,
Dong Soo Hwang (Division of Environmental Science and Engineering)
One booming research area that has recently become front-and-center in the materials market focuses on the creation of high-performing materials that leave the lightest possible environmental footprint to ensure sustainable development in the future. One such example is a material derived from marine organisms that has excellent mechanical properties and yet breaks down easily in the natural environment. This makes it an ideal candidate for next-generation medical materials.
The Laboratory for Biological, Biomimetic, Eco-friendly Materials headed by professor Dong Soo Hwang at the Division of Environmental Science and Engineering, POSTECH, aims to understand the characteristics of such naturally-derived materials as the skin of pears, insect wings, barnacles, and squid (beaks and suckers) and to engineer eco-friendly materials from them.
Human teeth are made up of hard inorganic matter. In contrast, the teeth of such sea creatures as lugworms and squids are composed of plastic-like organic substances that are not only robust, but also durable and naturally dissolve at the end of their lifecycle. Upon closer observation, the mechanism involved in the composition of the hard organic teeth that these marine organisms grow reveals that trace amounts of metal are inserted between plastic-like organic matter. This mechanism, when applied to the thin-film fabrication process deployed to create a thin protective layer for semiconductors, helps improve mechanical strength. Lugworms that burrow into plastic buoys floating on the sea are another source of biodegradable plastic materials.
As numerous living organisms thrive in nature, materials research makes it apparent that their application can take many forms. A medical agent made through the mixture of gallic acid, an adhesive extracted from the blood of ascidians, and iron can be used to cover dental tubules and prevent teeth from becoming cold. When this agent combines with the calcium in our saliva, it also helps restore our teeth, whose bony components have been damaged. This achievement took its cue from the adhesive materials generated by ascidians to heal their tissues that have been wounded in the rough sea water. When these breakthrough materials are created, the Lab either transfers the technology to an interested company or launches a startup of its own for manufacturing.
Recently, researchers at the Lab have been studying the development of anti-fouling paints that prevent sea organisms from attaching themselves to the surface of vessels. When these unwanted marine organisms accumulate on the bottom of vessels during navigation, friction increases and this reduces fuel efficiency by as much as 80%. In fact, these sea organisms can actually affect the fuel efficiency so drastically as to cut the distance the vessel is able to sail in half. Anti-fouling agents were once painted on vessels as a way to address this problem, but these agents have since been prohibited as they contain such toxic substances as tin and copper. The Lab is targeting mussels first and are developing anti-fouling paints that keep them away from the vessel.
Environmental engineering is truly a cross-disciplinary field as it combines chemistry, physics, and bioscience. In completing his post-doctoral course, Professor Hwang majored in a wide array of disciplines – chemical engineering, biotechnology, marine science and physics. In other words, students with majors in a range of areas such as physics, bioscience, chemistry or mechanics can join the Lab and successfully engage in their desired research topics. The Laboratory for Biological, Biomimetic, Eco-friendly Materials wholeheartedly welcomes anyone interested in leveraging its top-notch research equipment to explore yet to be discovered natural materials and develop green plastics that go towards aiding the conservation of the environment.
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