Appalled by the Illegal Trade in Elephant Ivory, a Biologist Decided to Make His Own

Smithsonian

May 10, 2017

Faking the stuff of elephant tusks could benefit wildlife conservation and engineering—yet many technical hurdles remain

"In a review article in the journal Nature Materials, Dartmouth engineering professor Ulrike Wegst notes that 'mimicking the features of a natural material is not a trivial undertaking.'" writes Smithsonian Magazine. "Despite advances in characterizing biological materials, few have been successfully synthesized due to the challenges of understanding their complexity at multiple scales, she writes. A possible exception is nacre, or mother-of-pearl—which, like ivory, consists of organic and mineral components, and has been closely replicated by human engineers.

"'It is indeed possible to engineer biomimetic materials with properties that are akin to their counterparts,' Wegst says via email. 'The first questions I would ask are: For which application do you wish to create an ivory-substitute material, and what are the design requirements for that application?... There are numerous pathways, and several could be very exciting indeed.'"

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