Microfiber Surfaces

Recently a crew member came to me with an interesting request to provide them with a set of boots capable of allowing one to walk on walls, which immediately led me into an afternoon of theory on what the best possible means of what such an item would do in order to achieve this effect. There’s a number of ways to administer adhesion between two surfaces. If one wanted to make the assumption that the surface is metallic, a pair of magnetic boots could be a decent way of solving the problem. Alternatively a pair of boots with a sticky surface of sorts could be another route to look into. A simple test of either of these options, however, quickly leaves one with a sour realization. Adhesion, in fact, is not the effect that should be used for this project. If one is trying to mimic the effect of walking, do your feet stick to the floor? Its already straining enough to imagine trying to walk ‘up’, the muscles involved not particularly¬† familiar gravity pulling down on your body in such a fashion. To throw in further resistance would be diverging away from a useful solution.

In turn, why not look to nature for solutions? Are there not creatures that already have the capability to wall-walk? And if they do, how do they do it? Of course, there are such creatures. I found a recent study on the common gecko’s ability to climb flat surfaces, explaining in detail how it works. Upon the gecko’s feet are millions upon millions of tiny hairs called setae, and like split ends, each seta branches into billion of nanoscale spatulae. The result is a heavily frictional surface without the downsides of ‘stickyness’, capable of forming a bond that is a thousand times greater than the force the gecko needs to hang onto a wall.

From this concept comes the design of the following.

The surfaces of these items are covered in a synthetic array of polypropylene fibers. The fibers, packed 45 million per square centimeter, each measure at a tiny 18 microns long and 0.5 microns in diameter (or about 100 times thinner than a human hair). One micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter. With something like rubber, you control friction and adhesive properties by changing its chemical formulations. For the micro-fiber array, I can simply alter its geometry and mechanical properties. Thicker and fatter fibers, for example, reduce the amount of friction created. Thanks to this property, I’m also able to control when this geometry falls into play. By causing the fibers to gravitate at an angle from a surface (IE: when the boot’s bottoms are parallel to a wall, causing the fibers to tilt downwards), one is able to imitate an almost adhesive like property by means of wedging yourself against it without the downsides of a truly sticky bond. To get a better feel of the surface in question, here are a couple micro level snapshots.

I’ve made these available for assembly via the ship’s replicator systems, so feel free to mess around with them. Keep my forewarning in mind though, please. The addition of the gloves was to address the fact that one will find it difficult is not completely impossible to move upwards against gravitation using normal walking muscles, which have been developed to support the body’s upright weight, not a body parallel to the ground. Even with the gloves, I recommend trying to climb by releasing only one appendage (foot or hand) from the surface at a time, as the support involved is still quite different from getting a hand-hold on a jagged surface and pulling yourself up by relying on your wrist (rather than your palm and fingertips, in this case). Apart from that, however, I feel these will be quite useful in small-scale acrobatics amidst strange scenarios when one can briefly cling to a surface they might not have otherwise been able to.

Filed under: Weaponry and Tools | Posted on May 3rd, 2009 by Crono

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