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J Mech Behav Biomed Mater. 2008 Jan;1(1):76-85. doi: 10.1016/j.jmbbm.2007.03.001. Epub 2007 May 29.

Mechanical strength of abalone nacre: role of the soft organic layer.

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  • 1Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering Programme, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0411, USA.


The nacreous portion of the abalone shell is composed of calcium carbonate crystals interleaved with layers of viscoelastic proteins. The resulting structure yields unique mechanical properties. In this study, we focus on the thin viscoelastic layers between the tiles and on their role on the mechanical properties of the shell. Both SEM and AFM show that the thin (approximately 30 nm) organic layer is porous, containing holes with diameter of approximately 50 nm. These holes enable the formation of mineral bridges between adjacent tile layers. The mineral bridges play a pivotal role in growth and ensure the maintenance of the same crystallographic relationship through tile growth in the 'terraced cone' mode. The existence of mineral bridges is consistent with the difference between tensile and compressive strength of the abalone. Mechanical tests with loading applied perpendicular to the plane of the organic layers reveal a tensile strength lower than 10 MPa, whereas the compressive strength is approximately 300-500 MPa. These nanoscale bridges have, by virtue of their dimensions (50 nm diameter x 30 nm length), a strength that reaches their theoretical value. The calculated tensile strength based on the theoretical strength predicts a bridge density of approximately 2.25/microm(2). A major conclusion of this investigation is that the role of the organic layer is primarily to subdivide the CaCO(3) matrix into platelets with thickness of 0.5 microm. Its intrinsic effect in providing a glue between adjacent tiles may not be significant.

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