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Skin pigment could help strengthen foams and fabrics

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Melanin is the natural molecule in animals' skin, hair and the iris of eyes that gives them color and helps protect them from ultraviolet light. Someday soon, the pigment could be found in unexpected places such as sofa cushions or clothing — but not for its hue. Scientists have found that adding a small amount of melanin to polyurethane makes it far stronger than the material by itself. Their study appears in the ACS journal Biomacromolecules.

From durable foam seating and insulation to glossy coatings and stretchy textiles, polyurethane is used in a huge range of products. Although already fairly versatile, polyurethane still has room for improvement. To make it more durable, scientists have tried adding fillers, including silica, carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide. But these efforts have often led to the enhancement of only one physical property at a time, such as tensile strength — how hard a material can be pulled before it snaps — but not toughness — how much energy it can absorb without breaking. Mingqing Chen, Weifu Dong and colleagues wanted to try a new approach: adding melanin, a biomolecule increasingly used in various other materials.

The researchers found that polyurethane containing just 2 percent melanin, extracted from the ink sacs of cuttlefish, had improved tensile strength and toughness. These properties were enhanced about 10 fold, increasing from 5.6 megapascals and 33 megajoules per cubic meter in plain polyurethane to 51.5 MPa and 413 MJ/m3, respectively. Polyurethane by itself could stretch 770 percent before breaking, whereas the melanin-infused version stretched 1,880 percent before rupturing.

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The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities.

The abstract that accompanies this study is available here.

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