New synthetic tooth enamel is stronger than the natural kind

It could make everything from artificial teeth to body armor.

Scientists have finally created an artificial tooth enamel as strong as the natural stuff — and it could have applications far beyond the dentist’s office.

The challenge: Tooth enamel is the whitish tissue that covers our teeth. It’s the hardest substance in the human body, but it’s also slightly elastic — those properties help it avoid cracking as we chomp down year after year.

But while enamel is tough, it’s not indestructible — it can wear down over time, and sugar-eating bacteria can produce acids that cause tiny holes (cavities) to form in it.

Our bodies can’t regenerate tooth enamel, and scientists haven’t been able to create a synthetic version that matches the real stuff’s strength and elasticity. As a result, dentists have had to rely on materials that aren’t as ideal as natural enamel when repairing damage to our teeth.

“This method of making artificial enamel lends itself to commercial production.”

Nicholas A. Kotov

Reason to smile: An international team of researchers has now produced an artificial tooth enamel that not only matches the strength and elasticity of natural enamel, but is actually stronger and more durable.

To create it, they coated nanowires of the same material in real tooth enamel — hydroxyapatite — in a nontoxic, metal-based substance. They then used a process involving extreme temperatures to coax the wires into assembling into a structure similar to that of natural enamel.

The artificial tooth enamel could be useful for repairing damaged bones or coating medical implants.

“This method of making artificial enamel lends itself to commercial production, and it can be produced for the manufacture of artificial teeth,” study co-author Nicholas A. Kotov told British newspaper i.

“I would not like to make any predictions about the timing of its actual implementation in patients,” he continued, “but I do know that all the components are biocompatible and can be expected to perform well in both animal and human trials.”

Beyond teeth: Artificial teeth are just one potential medical application for the new synthetic enamel — the material might be useful for repairing damaged bones or coating implants, such as pacemakers.

The synthetic tooth enamel could also have uses outside the body.

“From creating body armor to strengthening or hardening surfaces for floors or cars, there could be many, many applications,” Alvaro Mata, a biomedical engineer at the University of Nottingham, who was not involved with the study, told Science Magazine

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Related
New deep brain stimulator is powered automatically by breathing
A deep brain stimulator powered by breathing could eliminate the need for patients to undergo regular battery-change surgeries.
“SkinKit” lets ordinary people build their own “smart tattoos”
“SkinKit” smart tattoos are wearable devices that collect data directly from users’ bodies and display useful information in real time.
A new material called a mechanical neural network can learn and change its physical properties
The new material’s architecture is based on that of an artificial neural network – layers of interconnected nodes that can learn to do tasks.
Quantum computer designs heat-radiating window coating
Notre Dame researchers have used quantum computing to design a transparent window coating that reflects heat into the atmosphere.
These earbuds can tell if a newborn has hearing problems
A newborn hearing screening device made from off-the-shelf earbuds is as effective as expensive commercial options.
Up Next
Shape-shifting material
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories