a biodegradable hook-and-loop fastener


scientists at IIT (italian institute of technology) have unveiled the first-ever prototype of a soft, biodegradable, and soluble velcro inspired by catchweed plants. its micro-hook structure proved to be suitable for use in devices for the monitoring and safeguarding of the environment and in precision farming. this structure can be attached to plant leaves, serving as a temporary plaster, releasing beneficial substances into the plant’s vascular system, or as clips that communicate health status information of plants. 


‘our studies always begin by observing nature, seeking to replicate the strategies employed by living creatures through low-environmental-impact robotic technologies’, commented barbara mazzolai, coordinator of the project. 

biodegradable micro-hook patches mimic velcro's functionvideo still courtesy of IIT (italian institute of technology)



the history of velcro 


velcro derives its name from the french words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). it was invented by the swiss engineer george de mestral, who filed his first patent for a toy airplane at the age of 12. in 1948, when he was hiking with his irish pointer in the jura mountains, he was beset by cockleburs (burdock seeds), which stuck firmly to his clothing and his dog’s fur. in his attempt to remove the seed pods, he was fascinated by their adhesive abilities, leading him to examine a few under a microscope. with his research, de mestral realized that each burr was wrapped with hundreds of tiny hooks. and this was the starting point of a similar artificial clip.


his idea was doubted by many clothing manufacturers until one supplier managed to weave two cotton strips — one side with a furry surface and the other covered by tiny hooks — that stuck together as strong as the cockleburs had. the trademark name was officially registered ten years after its origin. by then, the swiss engineer obtained a $150,000 loan to improve the concept and found his own company to produce his newly invented fasteners.


in the beginning, the product didn’t have direct success, although NASA used it for getting astronauts in and out of their spacesuits. but after the child-fashion industry realized its practical benefits —usually employed in sneakers, backpacks, jackets, and toys — he turned into a multi-millionaire, selling more than 55 thousand kilometers of velcro per year. thirty years after his success he died, while a decade later he was inaugurated into the national inventors hall of fame.biodegradable micro-hook patches mimic velcro's functionimage by IIT (italian institute of technology)



a natural ingredient for multiple application 


the italien researchers of IIT utilized a high-resolution 3D printing to replicate these patches in biodegradable and soluble form, made of a sugar-like substance named isomalt. their discovery proved capable of attaching to various plant species, without damaging their leaves. as a first proposal, the team developed a device that punctures the first layer of the plant, enabling it to be monitored and treated. as the isomalt is soluble, the microhooks attach to the vascular system of leaves and then dissolve inside. as the patch is absorbed, then no waste is left behind. 


‘these micro-hooks are versatile and have allowed us to create a range of applications, as well as filing a patent’, explained isabella fiorello, a researcher in mazzolai’s group at the genoa-based IIT, and the main author of the project. ‘this form of anchoring can be exploited for in situ monitoring of the plant’s microclimate, such as temperature, humidity and light, or for the controlled release of molecules into the plant’s vascular system.’


head over to ars tecnica for more info.biodegradable micro-hook patches mimic velcro's functionvideo still courtesy of IIT (italian institute of technology)

biodegradable micro-hook patches mimic velcro's functionvideo still courtesy of IIT (italian institute of technology)