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20 July 2017 - Jann Raveling

ELiSE – using diatoms to explore bionics

Digital/Industry 4.0

Light, efficient and environmentally friendly components with ELiSE

Diatoms are nature’s experts in lightweight construction and are a much-used model for bionics
Diatoms are nature’s experts in lightweight construction and are a much-used model for bionics © AWI

Diatoms, of which there are 100,000 species, are no bigger than two millimetres in size and make up a quarter of all biomass produced on our planet. They may be common throughout the world, but looking at them through a microscope can surprise even seasoned scientists. Under magnification it is possible to appreciate the countless, aesthetically pleasing forms that are highly complex, yet near symmetrical.

Bremerhaven is one of the best places to study diatoms, as the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) for Polar and Marine Research is home to one of the world’s largest collections, with more than 100,000 samples. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Dr Hamm uses diatoms as models for his bionic research and development. The marine biologist, geologist and palaeontologist is Head of the Bionic Lightweight Optimization and Functional Morphology unit, a group of experts at the AWI that applies forms and functions found in nature to technical solutions. They are known as ELiSE, which stands for Evolutionary Light Structure Engineering.

Dr Christian Hamm
Dr Christian Hamm © AWI

“I have always been fascinated by the connection between form and function, particularly the mechanical principles in tiny diatoms. That is why I became more involved in biophysics, before finally ending up in bionics,” says Hamm, explaining his interest in this field. These algae are present in phytoplankton, and they protect themselves from predators using sturdy shells that are also light enough to float to the water’s surface. And it is this lightweight construction that bionics is interested in.

ELiSE brings research and practical application together

Hamm’s unit currently has 17 members of staff. They view their task as a two-way street: on the one hand they translate functional principles found in nature into industrial products, on the other they use their experience in industry to drive progress in diatom research and bionics.

The main focus of their work is lightweight construction. Other areas of application include vibration and oscillation optimisation, and the structure, strength and permeability of materials. Customers include companies in the automotive, aerospace and consumer goods industries, and in marine technology and prosthetics.

The folding bicycle was created using bionic lightweight construction principles
The folding bicycle was created using bionic lightweight construction principles © AWI

One example of their work is the bionic folding bicycle developed as part of a research project. The aluminium frame is a complex construction based in part on diatoms. “We built it using lattice structures to ensure it remained lightweight, and used a variety of tube diameters to provide excellent load distribution. Thanks to these innovations we were able to create the lightest bicycle of its kind,” a proud Hamm explains. The bicycle was manufactured by citim GmbH, one of the team’s partners in the field of Additive Manufacturing (3D printing).

More complex than you might think

Hamm’s team relies on a combination of engineering skill and scientific research when working on projects. It has created its own process, based on a bionics guideline from the Association of German Engineers (VDI), that makes ELiSE a unique tool for product development. The team combines complex simulations and methods, such as genetic algorithms, its own databases, and techniques based on the evolutionary process, in order to find the best solution to a given challenge.

Detailansicht des Tretlagers: Gut zu sehen sind die Gewichtseinsparungen durch bionische Streben
A detailed view of the pedal bearings reveals the weight savings made by using bionic struts © AWI

Looking for solutions in joint workshops

At the start of a collaborative partnership, the ELiSE team holds workshops with its clients to find out which component is a potential candidate for bionic optimization. Once the final specifications for a component have been determined, the engineers get to work, developing and evolving ideas in order to find the best – and generally unusual – solution. While regular, hexagonal honeycomb structures, for example, are often put forward as the prime example of bionics, nature itself is far more precise. “The honeycomb structures in diatoms are not entirely uniform. Some cells are smaller or larger, some have thicker walls, and sometimes cells are pentagonal. Irregularities in the right place increase overall stability, and it is our task to find out exactly where and how to use them,” Hamm adds.

AWI and Bremerhaven: stronger together

Anyone listening to Hamm will be immediately struck by his enthusiasm for bionics. The 51-year-old first came across the AWI ten years ago, and he is delighted to have found a research organisation that can support his team both in terms of expertise and strategy. “I am particularly attracted by the mix of actual technology transfer to industry, and world-class research into diatoms. Here in Bremen and Bremerhaven we also have close links with businesses and the research community, and there is an innovation-friendly climate,” Hamm adds. The team has plenty of ambition for the future. One objective is to spin off the application group on the EliSE team into an independent company. Another is to drive progress in bionics, as this area of research is still in its infancy. “While bionics has huge potential for the future, we have only just started to develop effective methods and understand the link between form and function. Bionics will become an important area of research, especially as technologies upon which it relies, such as additive manufacturing, and calculation methods, are evolving with us. One day it will enjoy a similar status to other new technologies, such as nanotechnology,” says Hamm.

If you are interested in investing in Bremen from abroad, please feel free to contact Andreas Gerber, head of the international relocation team, +49 (0) 421 9600-123, gerber@bremen-invest.com

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