Western Mail Profiles: Dr Richard Johnston

‘Look closer, see more – how we can mimic nature for the future benefit of society’

Richard Johnston is a Senior Lecturer in materials science within the College of Engineering at Swansea University and a British Science Association Media Fellow. He is currently exploring the hidden micro world using X-rays. He also created the Research as Art project, is Co-Director of the Materials Academy and runs the outreach project Materials Live..

There’s a vast world out there, too small for us to see, hidden inside the nature all around us.

We are surrounded by nature, from the trees that line our streets, to the bones inside our bodies and the creatures that swim in our seas. The hidden micro-structures that make up these natural systems have evolved over millions of years to perform certain functions, whether that’s the strength given by the fibres of bamboo, or the tiny hairs that give the gecko its adhesive foot!

What can we learn from nature? How can we mimic nature for the benefit of society? Bioinspiration and biomimicry are fields that aim to answer these questions.

My group is using X-rays to peer inside nature – providing a glimpse of these hidden structures in 3-dimensions at the micro scale. We use similar X-ray technology to a medical CT scanner found in hospitals, but with a much higher power and resolution. This means we can see internal features more than ten-times smaller than the width of a human hair, and we can do it in 3-dimensions.

We’re investigating previously invisible structures in nature, to gain an understanding of the functions they perform – this could be for strength, to aid fluid flow, or other evolutionary adaptive traits. This not only provides insight into how and why natural structures have developed, but we can consider scientific and engineering applications, for instance where strength or fluid flow is important. We can also consider different sizes, reproducing structures by 3D-printing.

The internal architecture of a cuttlefish bone is incredibly intricate, and allows the cuttlefish to vary its buoyancy by pumping seawater in or out of the spaces in the bone. These spaces are around a tenth of a millimetre, yet we can consider applications on the metre scale if the same function is required. Evolution has optimised the structure for that purpose, and we can learn from it, adapt it, and apply it to other areas.

The aim is to benefit from the years of improvements and adaptations that drove evolution, mimicking these structures in science, architecture, and engineering.

In addition to the bioinspiration project, we’re using X-rays on a number of exciting multidisciplinary collaborations. I get to work with lots of inspiring people with very different expertise, and learn about entirely new science on a daily basis. Current projects involve working with a rheumatologist and marine biologist (fellow colleagues from Welsh Crucible) to image osteoarthritis, detecting microscopic cracks in aerospace materials, investigating medical device effectiveness, X-raying the human remains from the Mary Rose, dating historical volcanic events related to climate changes, predicting match patterns with the Welsh Rugby Union, examining the corrosion resistance of zinc alloys…even scanning the insides of Egyptian mummies for a BBC TV programme!

These hidden micro-worlds excite me and fuel my curiosity. To quote the cinemicroscopist Roman Vishniac “To look closer. We will see more, we will be wiser, and the world to you will be bigger”.

Richard may be contacted at: r.johnston@swansea.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail on 9th December 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.