3D printed cat tongue inspires Georgia Tech scientists

The remarkably capable felines have another lesson in efficiency for their humans.

Cat Tongue

Thanks to millions of years of evolution, the domestic cat is one of the most instinctually efficient mammals, from sensing, grooming, eating, hunting and moving. Cats do it all quickly, quietly, nimbly and effectively – a manner that many a bumbling human could stand to learn from. Now Georgia Tech researchers have uncovered another characteristic natural to the domestic cat’s tongue that the human race could and is likely to learn and benefit from.

A doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, Alexis Noel and a team of researchers made a 3D printed tongue that effectively mimics that of the domestic cat’s – just magnified by 400 per cent. It was her observation of the family cat’s tongue becoming stuck in a thick microfiber blanket that first caused her to notice something curious.

As Noel helped detangle the cat's tongue, she noticed a series of tiny, backward-facing spines that were shaped like claws. Using high-speed cameras capable of capturing the detailed mechanics of cats licking their fur – something they spend almost 50 per cent of their day doing – she was able to study the "spines” and create a life-like 3D rendering. Close observation led her to believe these movements could be artificially replicated by humans.

Cat Tongue Close Up

“When the tongue glides over fur, the hooks are able to lock onto tangles and snags,” Noel explained to The Washington Post. “As the snags pull on the hook, the hook rotates, slowly teasing the knot apart. Much like claws, the front of the spine is curved and hook-like. So when it encounters a tangle, it is able to maintain contact, unlike a standard hairbrush bristle, which would bend and let the tangle slide off the top.”

Though the knowledge gained from this research could certainly be used in the hair, cosmetics and cleaning industries, it also has more interesting implications for the field of soft robotics. Because researchers are still grappling with determining methods for soft materials to grip surfaces, the lessons learned by Noel and her team could have far reaching consequences for this field and suitably speed up its progress.

Presently, Noel’s team is continuing to study frictional resistance in regards to the cat tongue and how it can be used in more practical human applications. The researchers have filed for a patent and their concept is being further developed at the Innovation Corps at Georgia Tech.

Pictures via: Cats International 

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