Theses Doctoral

Hydration Solids

Harrellson, Steven Glenn

Water-responsive biological materials make up a large fraction of the earth’s biomass. Organisms can exchange water with their environment to actuate organ movement, and this process has inspired engineers to mimic this for technological use. Hygroscopic biological materials are chemically and phylogenetically diverse, implying that there may be fundamental physical principles which can explain their mechanics. In this thesis I will detail the development of a theory, the hygroelastic model, that explains a number of surprising mechanical behaviors exhibited by the hygroscopic bacterial spore of Bacillus subtilis.

The hygroelastic model relies on the idea that the nanoconfinement of water molecules near interfaces influences the mechanics of nanoporous biological materials. The effects associated with this restructuring are collectively referred to as Hydration Forces. I will explain how these forces give rise to the equilibrium, nonequilibrium, and hygroscopic mechanical behaviors of the bacillus subtilis spore. Further, I will explain how hydration forces predict a previously unrecognized mechanical transition in the spore that emerges under rapid compression. The predicted mechanical behaviors of the model were validated experimentally through the use of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). By modifying the traditional Hertz formula to account for a strain-dependent elastic modulus, we show that the hygroelastic model well explains the anomalous force-indentation curves collected on bacterial spores. We also confirm the existence of the mechanical transition which appears under rapid indentation. Using multiple AFM operational modes, we collected force-indentation curves across a wide range of contact times ranging from near a second to 10’s of microseconds. These experiments showed a rapid increase in elastic modulus occurring near the predicted timescale of the hygroelastic transition.

Though these unique mechanical properties are uncommon in materials, the underlying assumptions of the hygroelastic theory are general. Because nanoporous hygroscopic matter is commonly found in nature, it is possible that hygroelastic model could be applied to a number of other biological structures as well. Notably, the hygroelastic model predicts that bacterial spores owe their elastic response to hydration forces, which emerge from a disruption of water structure near the porous interface. These ‘hydration solids,’ may represent a paradigm in materials. Their mechanical properties may find use in engineered materials, with tailored elasticity, dissipation, nonlinear response, and frequency response.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Sahin, Ozgur
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 10, 2022