Dentist - Dr. Amy Norman, DDS, PS

Is Tooth Enamel the Model for New Airplane Materials?

Tooth enamel is one of the strongest substances in the body. Known for its strength and ability to flex, tooth enamel endures a large amount of force during chewing and biting. Tooth enamel's ability to stand up to this force has caught the eye of research at the University of Michigan interested in building stronger airplane flight computers.

Flight computers experience a significant amount of pressure caused by atmospheric changes when in flight. The pressure on these devices and other solid materials in the airplane’s may cause cracking and damage. The materials found in airplanes that are softer or more flexible hold up to the vibrations and pressure exerted on them from being in flight.

Scientists at the school examined the enamel of different animals as part of the study. They looked at the teeth of several animals, including tooth from a sea urchin and a fossilized tooth from a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Results of their examination yielded the conclusion that although all the teeth examined came from different animals, the structure of the enamel was the same no matter the size of the animal.

The physical structure of tooth enamel is made up of ceramic-like crystals and a web of proteins. These components give the teeth its strength and flexibility. There is a hard shell covering over the crystals and web of proteins that protects the tooth from bacteria and food debris. This design makes tooth enamel effective at absorbing pressure and vibrations.

In some teeth, like incisors, this layering pattern is repeated. Incisors and molars are used for tearing, biting and chewing through hard or tough foods. As a result, the enamel on these teeth must be strong and durable. Tooth enamel needs to be durable because it needs to last. Not only through normal use of biting and chewing, but because the number of teeth people have is finite.

"Humans are born with all the natural teeth that they are ever going to have," Dr. Amy Norman, D.D.S., P.S. said.

Norman is an Everett, Washington, dentist who encourages her patients to take care of their teeth in order to prevent decay and damage to enamel.

"Avoiding foods and beverages high in acid will also help prevent erosion and thinning of the tooth enamel," Norman said.

Tooth enamel is incapable of regeneration, unlike other cells of the body. This means it does not have the ability to heal itself after a cavity forms or the tooth experiences a crack or chip.

Researchers on the project designed a product similar to tooth enamel to test out a protective cover for flight computers. They used a mineral, zinc oxide, and plastic in layers. Layering the components designed a product similar to tooth enamel that would allow it to flex with pressure. The researchers allowed the layers to cure in between, and then they repeated the layering process until the material had the thickness of one micrometer- or one thousandth of the thickness of tooth enamel. Once they reached one micrometer, they repeated the process twenty more times.

Their efforts produced a material that was durable, but flexible enough to sustain under the pressure exerted on airplane computers in flight. To test the strength of their product, the UM researchers put it through flight trials performed with the Michigan Technological University and the Illinois Applied Research Institute.

The material held up to the changes in pressure exerted on it by being flight. Individuals conducting the study feel their product is a contender for future flight recorders because the material is more durable and lighter than other materials that have been tested for the same purpose.



Source: University of Michigan. "Synthetic tooth enamel may lead to more resilient structures." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 March 2017. 

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