Reuters

How scientists turned a beetle's unusual defense mechanism into technology.

Defense can be a messy business in the natural world. There are suicidal blast ants that explode, horror frogs that create makeshift claws out of their own broken bones, and bombardier beetles that spray near-boiling gas that's noxious enough to burn human skin. 

The elegance of the bombardier beetle's defense mechanism caught the attention of scientists in Switzerland, who designed anti-theft technology that works like the beetle's anatomy.

The beetle does its thing by storing two chemicals—hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone—in separate abdominal chambers. When the chemicals mix, they create a reaction that heats and partially vaporizes the liquids. The resulting gas is what the beetle then sprays. It looks like this:

Skip ahead to the one-minute mark and check it out: 

Chemists at ETH Zurich University found a way to replicate this effect using two chemical-filled honeycomb structures. They filled the hollow spaces of one structure with hydrogen peroxide, and filled the hollow spaces of the other with manganese dioxide. Then, they separated the two structures with a thin lacquer that breaks pretty easily on impact. If the two chemicals mix, a reaction occurs. 

The scientists say their technology could be built into cash machines that would ooze hot foam when someone tampers with them, according to the university.

"Since the responsive materials presented here do not depend on electricity, they may provide a cost effective alternative to currently used safety systems in the public domain, automatic teller machines and protection of money transport systems," ETH researchers wrote in a Journal of Materials Chemistry paper.

But instead of burning potential thieves the way a beetle would spray a predator, scientists say their device would emit dye and DNA nanoparticles that would render stolen banknotes useless and mark them for tracking.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

Top Image: A cash machine in downtown Rome (Reuters/ Tony Gentile).

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. People eat and drink coffee inside a small coffeehouse.
    Life

    Gentrification Is Hurting Kuala Lumpur's Iconic Coffee Shops

    Traditional kopitiams, which serve sweetened coffee in no-frills surroundings, are a part of Malaysian national identity, but their survival is precarious.

  2. Transportation

    Electric Scooters Aren’t a Transportation Revolution Yet

    New data show a staggering rise in shared dockless e-scooter use nationwide. But commuting habits have seen little change since the dawn of micromobility.

  3. a photo of Northern Virginia's Crystal City.
    Life

    When Your Neighborhood Gets a Corporate Rebrand

    From National Landing to SoHa, neighborhoods often find themselves renamed by forces outside the community, from big companies to real estate firms.

  4. a photo of a man surveying a home garage.
    Transportation

    How Single-Family Garages Can Ease California's Housing Crisis

    Given the affordable housing crisis, California cities should encourage single-family homeowners to convert garages into apartments and accessory dwelling units.

  5. Kaoutar Belhirech (left) and Fatima Tourari (right) in the Mères en Ligne radio station.
    Equity

    How a Radio Show Gives Unwed Mothers in Morocco a Voice

    Legal changes gave Moroccan women more rights, but unwed mothers still face prosecution and stigma. A Tangier radio station, Mères en Ligne, gives them a voice.