NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is working on many important pieces of technology, but perhaps none are more significant than the gecko-inspired tech that could one day be better than gaffer tape.
Conventional tapes that we use may seem magical, but they have flaws: the adhesive loses its tackiness after a few uses, rendering it virtually useless.
To try and fix this flaw, NASA has been looking to the animal kingdom. Geckos can climb up things using a different approach: they use tiny hairs on the bottom of their feet, which cling to walls and provide enough stickiness. It relies on something called van der Waals force, which NASA explains:
A slight electrical field is created because electrons orbiting the nuclei of atoms are not evenly spaced, so there are positive and negative sides to a neutral molecule. The positively charged part of a molecule attracts the negatively charged part of its neighbour, resulting in “stickiness”. Even in extreme temperature, pressure and radiation conditions, these forces persist.
A van der Waals material doesn’t leave any residue, like tape would, and doesn’t require a mating surface like Velcro. That makes it perfect for use on the Space Station, where every gram counts. The applications are numerous: in addition to anchors for astronauts (currently in development), the gecko-like material could also equip robots to crawl around the outside of the Space Station. Just imagine how different Gravity would have been if we made this 10 years earlier. [NASA]