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Illustration of the relationships among various aspects of biomolecular materials and their connections with the life sciences. (Courtesy of H. Ringsdorf, Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz.)
biological system are applied to a completely different system, is a very important concept, for in many applications the environment (e.g., temperature, pressure, corrosive chemicals) is more severe than the original biological system or material can tolerate. In addition, understanding how nature accomplishes a task or creates an unusual structure may lead to new materials or processes in which the advance is in learning to reverse nature's approach, rather than in learning to copy or modify it, so as to eliminate materials characteristics that are undesirable.
Although still in its infancy, the application of biological principles to the development of new materials has already been demonstrated. A nucleus of broad-based research already exists, involving a variety of disciplines including chemistry, physics, biology, materials science, and engineering. The field of biomolecular materials requires substantial additional basic research, however. Many significant applications are to be expected, but they may require a decade of research and development. The results of the research may not necessarily be systems that are strictly analogous or equivalent to those found in nature. It may be that payoffs will come in areas in which no functioning examples or archetypes yet exist.
The unique properties of biomolecular materials can be ascribed to certain common characteristics:
They are typically composed of molecules that interact by multiple, weak, orientation-dependent forces.
Because these molecules interact weakly, thermal fluctuations are important.
The materials are often self-assembled into structures on mesoscopic length scales from 100 Å to 10 mm.