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Biomechanics of insect cleaning devices

Supervisors: Walter Federle 

Project summary:

Cleaning is of major importance for animals and helps them to maintain essential functions such as sensing the environment, removing microbial parasites, distributing secretions, and being able to climb or fly. Insects spend a major part of their life grooming themselves. The complex devices that they use for cleaning have only been studied morphologically but how they work is still largely unknown. As the function of cleaning devices is largely based on their mechanical properties, this project will investigate the micromechanics of insect cleaning structures, most of which contain regular bristles, combs and brush arrays. Dirt particles can be removed from surfaces both by mechanical interlocking and adhesion and the arrays can work as filters for different-sized particles (Hackmann et al., 2015).

Contamination of functional surfaces is a problem for many technical applications, and cleaning surfaces from microscopic particles is still an unresolved engineering challenge. Learning from the highly efficient cleaning systems that nature has evolved will therefore provide inspiration for biomimetics.

What the student will be doing:

In this project, we will characterize the mechanical properties of cleaning combs and hairs in different insects using atomic force microscopy (AFM) and electron microscopy (SEM/TEM). AFM will be used to quantify flexural stiffness of hairs and combs as well as adhesion forces between particles and cleaning hairs. Electron microscopy will help to acquire detailed three-dimensional information about the hairs, allowing mechanical responses to be modelled quantitatively.

Recordings with multiple video cameras will be used to analyse insect cleaning movements three-dimensionally. Insect cleaning performance will be quantified for different cleaning systems and different types of contaminating particles.

Cleaning mechanisms will be further studied with experiments on physical models, with the aim to develop biomimetic synthetic cleaning systems.


Hackmann, A., Delacave, H., Robinson, A., Labonte, D. and Federle, W. (2015). Functional morphology and efficiency of the antenna cleaner in Camponotus rufifemur ants. R. Soc. Open Sci. 2, 150129.