Synthetic ivory

Oxford biologist Fritz Vollrath is working on creating a synthetic ivory.  Similar to mother-of-pearl, the goal would be to look, feel, and act like the natural substance yet be manmade.

It is a lengthy process of trial and error.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Under the microscope, ivory reveals its molecular structure: a three-dimensional collagen scaffolding filled with hydroxyl apatite minerals and water. Vollrath aimed to understand this distinct makeup well enough to improve upon the plastic-based substitutes that currently exist with a truly “biologically inspired” replica. “We’re still struggling to understand why it’s such a tough material,” Vollrath said. “It combines two kinds of material, mineral and collagen. Neither of them are great materials by themselves, but if you mix them up … it becomes something different.”

If successful, the project will still take years to become acccessible to the general public.  Then, of course, comes the question: will synthetic ivory help or hurt elephants?  The hope is that synthetic ivory would drive down the price of real ivory and poachers would no longer find their work profitable and get out of the business. But, there is concern that synthetic ivory would simply make it easier for real ivory to hide and be sold in the marketplace, thus maintaining or driving up demand for elephant tusks.

In any case, Vollrath hopes his research gives us insight into what makes elephant tusks so strong and so unusual in the natural world.



Photo taken at my local zoo




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