Tech Company Mimics Mother Nature With Gecko-Inspired Adhesives

Dec 27, 2016

NanoGriptech's adhesives are modeled after the tiny nanostructures that help geckos stick to walls and ceilings. Individual nanostructures on the dry adhesives, seen here under an electron microscope, can range from a few microns - one thousandth of a millimeter - to a few hundred microns.
Credit nanoGriptech

The team at nanoGriptech is eager to talk about the company’s products, but they’re less enthusiastic about discussing how their products are made.

NanoGriptech's vice president of engineering Paul Glass models the soft, rubbery liner that helps keep prosthetic limbs in place.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“We typically don’t show that space to people, but if you want to look around,” says vice president of engineering Paul Glass when I ask to see the manufacturing facility, which is housed in the same Lawrenceville industrial complex as nanoGriptech’s offices.

“I don’t think we can take pictures,” he adds.

Glass is secretive about the manufacturing process because he said other, bigger companies are trying to figure out how to do what nanoGriptech is doing. NanoGriptech, in turn, has figured out how to do something mother nature perfected long ago.

“We make gecko-inspired adhesive materials,” Glass said. “These are materials that have been designed with some of the principles that allow gecko lizards to climb up walls and stick to ceilings.”

NanoGriptech has more than one hundred different versions of the gecko-inspired nanostructures in their database. Different structures offer different levels of adhesion and serve different purposes.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Geckos have thousands of tiny hair-like structures on their feet. Each hair is so small that it activates what’s called inter-molecular attraction. Though each individual force is weak, together, the hairs can keep a gecko clinging firmly to a surface as smooth as plate glass.

“This was originally work that was done in academic settings to allow robots to climb ceilings,” Glass said. “In mind there was aerospace inspection and oil pipeline inspection and some defense applications.”

NanoGriptech was spun off of Carnegie Mellon University’s mechanical engineering department in 2009. Since then, they’ve come up with more than 100 different versions of the gecko-inspired “nanostructures” as they call them. A customer’s needs will determine what structure they use.

“Our typical structure are these cylindrical fibers with an enlarged flat tip shape. Different heights, different diameters, different tip size or aspect ratio, some have small tips, some have big tips,” Glass said. “We have angled structures as well in our database that give high adhesion strength in one direction but lower strength in another direction, so we can engineer directional adhesive products.”

Toronto-based Struck Apparel uses nanoGriptech's dry adhesive on its horseback riding breeches. The grippy materials on the inside of the knees help riders stay on the saddle, especially during jumps.
Credit Struck Apparel

What’s unique about these adhesives is that they’re totally dry. There’s no glue, paste or gum of any kind. It’s the structure itself that creates adhesion. And they really do stick; when the adhesive is pulled off a glass plate, you can almost hear the individual nanostructures disengaging.

The first commercial application for NanoGriptech’s dry adhesive, called Setex, is on horseback riding breeches, made by a Toronto-based company called Struck.

They put Setex on the insides of the knees of the pants, which helps riders stay in the saddle, especially during jumps. Co-founder Kevin Maxie said feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They’ve loved it. They’ve really enjoyed the fact that they do grip when they need it,” he said. “We’ve gotten lots of testimonials where people have said 'Oh my God, I had an ‘oh [crap]’ moment, and your pants helped me stick on.'”

NanoGriptech has other applications in the pipeline: soft rubbery liners that help keep prosthetic limbs in place and special seams for biohazard suits. There are also some top secret Department of Defense applications that, like the manufacturing process, Glass declined to describe.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • The green Party’s bid to recount votes in Pennsylvania was in trouble even before a federal judge crushed it. The effort stood little chance of detecting potential fraud or error because there was basically no backup. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states where the majority of voters—including those in Allegheny County-- use older machines that store votes electronically, without paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the balloting. There's almost no way to know if they've accurately recorded individual votes — or if anyone tampered with the count. A group of computer scientists who supported the recount effort says the paperless digital voting machines, used by roughly 1 in 5 U.S. voters last month, present one of the most glaring dangers to the security of the U.S. election system. Rice University computer scientist Dan Wallach calls it “a target-rich environment."
  • Panasonic will begin helping the car maker Tesla in its production of solar panels and solar glass roofs. Panasonic will be making the photovoltaic cells — what used to be called solar batteries. Production is expected to begin in mid-2017. The companies say Panasonic will also work with Tesla on next-generation technology.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.