The tough underbelly of lobsters is the subject of a new study conducted by a team of engineers at MIT.

They believe that probing the soft and stretchy membrane that protects the crustacean from the rocky surface of the ocean could guide the development of a new type of body armor strong enough to prevent mechanical penetration, but flexible enough to allow the person inside to move freely.

A Lobster's Surprising Toughness And Flexibility

In a paper published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia, the team took a closer look at the membrane of the Homarus americanus, more commonly known as the American lobster.

The membrane that is mostly found at the creature's joints and abdomens connects sections of the exoskeleton that shields the rest of the body. While the membrane looks rather vulnerable compared to the carapace, it is surprisingly effective at protecting the lobster's insides.

The team explained that the membrane is a natural hydrogel, which means it is mostly water mixed with a little bit of chitin, the fibrous substance found in many shells. The natural hydrogel allows for flexibility in movement, enabling the lobster to skitter around the ocean floor or whip predators with its tail.

The hydrogel is also impressively tough. Its strength, according to the researchers, is comparable to industrial rubber used to manufacture garden hoses, car tires, and conveyor belts.

In the paper, the team explained that the membrane has tens of thousands of microscopic layers that they compare to plywood. They believe this makes the material resistant to damage by a jagged ocean floor.

The Future Of Human Body Armor

The team believes that their findings can have many uses, particularly in the development of new body armors for humans. According to previous studies, the body armor currently in use in law enforcement can restrict the wearer's movement, causing impaired marksmanship and focus.

"We think this work could motivate flexible armor design," stated Ming Guo, an assistant professor at MIT and one of the authors of the study. "If you could make armor out of these types of materials, you could freely move your joints, and it would make you feel more comfortable."

The researchers also believe that the investigation of a lobster's membrane can be used in soft robotics and tissue engineering.

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