The human race is constantly trying to invent new adhesives to improve aerospace engineering, automobile technology, and even the medical industry. Bonding two objects permanently, or even temporarily, has proven a challenge for hundreds of years, and there is room in the market for a product that is sticky only when you need it to be. Spencer Silver worked at stationery company 3M in 1968, and when trying to develop a super strong adhesive he accidentally came up with a very weak one. It could just about hold a piece of paper to the nearby wall, and peeled away without leaving any residue. The first Post-it Notes were born.
Gecko feet have intrigued scientists for years, as they have this same quality. In fact, they stick to surfaces when the animal needs them to, but pee! away at will. The feet have attachment capabilities on smooth surfaces due to the structure of the sole. Each foot has microscopic fibres that use intermolecular forces to bind to materials. They are at a 20-degree angle and are able to manipulate the attractive forces between negative electrons and positive protons. This causes the foot to stick to a surface with no grip, and simply pulling the foot away is enough to break the bond.
Now a controllable adhesive that works in a similar way could be on the horizon. Mechanical engineer Yigit Mengup and his team have designed a surface with the sticky qualities of gecko feet that could be used to sort small parts and components. The adhesive allows pick-and-place work without the need for a single person to be present, if the adhesive is attached to a robot. This is called industry automation, and many factories rely on this kind of technology to keep their costs down. The gecko foot may still inspire more technology, and what has already been done is far from perfect. It could give rise to antigravity boots or Spiderman-style wall climbing. It’s just going to take a while for humans to replicate nature.