Pittsburgh TEQ®

Getting a Grip: nanoGriptech brings space-age adhesives to market

Tim Hayes

There’s that great scene from the first “Spiderman” movie where Peter Parker, who had been bitten by a radioactive spider, decides to test out his new super spider powers. He starts to climb a brick wall vertically, placing the fingertips of one hand, then the next, up the wall. Before long, he has made it the whole way up, using nothing but this mysterious adhesive ability.

But stop in at a lab about two blocks from the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, and you’ll find that there’s nothing mysterious about it. They’ve got it all figured out at nanoGriptech.

In 2009, Dr. Metin Sitti, a CMU professor transplanted from the University of California at Berkeley, founded nanoGriptech LLC as a spinoff. Putting Spiderman aside for a moment, Sitti was instead inspired by the amazing climbing ability of geckos and insects due to their micro- and nanoscale foot-hairs.

As a result, nanoGriptech aims to develop and mass-produce repeatable polymer micro/nano-fibrillar adhesives for a wide range of product applications. The firm has R&D facilities to design, prototype, and evaluate various fiber adhesive designs for various product applications. It also has received grants from the Pennsylvania NanoTechnology Commercialization Center to help bring this exciting application to the marketplace.

“The nanoGriptech technology completely replaces Velcro,” said Alan Brown, executive director of the Nanocenter. “Unlike Velcro, it doesn’t collect lint and other materials. It’s not two-sided, but is a smooth strip. It’s also waterproof, and sticks with complete silence. There are numerous defense applications possible, and the military likes it because it’s so quiet.”

Sitti, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at CMU, has become a recognized authority on the gecko's adhesive ability. As he explains it, a gecko's toes have millions of very small hairs, each one-tenth the width of a human hair. At the end of each hair are hundreds of saucerlike structures known as spatula, each 500 to 1,000 times smaller than a human hair's width. Forces of attraction hold each spatula to a surface, but the combined force of millions of hairs create a powerful bond, allowing the gecko to stick to nearly anything.

“It's not like glue, it's not a liquid, it's a temporary attachment," explained the professor, who also heads up the university's NanoRobotics Laboratory and is on the faculty of the CMU Robotics Institute.

nanoGriptech hopes to commercialize its unique technology, and received funding from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, along with Air Force Research Laboratory funds funneled through the Nanocenter.

At nanoGriptech, microfabrication – or, manufacturing on an ultra-small scale – yields mold templates that get filled with polymers to create the hair-like appendages. To make the spatula, a drop of polymer is placed on a fiber, then pressed to a nonstick surface, followed by curing the tip.

The end result? A new, vibrant technology that makes sticking stuff together faster, better, and quieter. It’s not a comic book or a movie, like “Spiderman.” This is for real.