A fastener with microscopic mushroom shapes could be as strong as Velcro but with less noise and less damage to other fabrics, researchers say.

A fastener with microscopic mushroom shapes could be as strong as Velcro but with less noise and less damage to other fabrics, researchers say.
Photo: Preeti Sharma

Velcro is great when you need to open stuff fast or with ease, but Velcro is not so great when you’re trying to discreetly open your shoulder bag to grab your headphones. Researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands have come up with a new design for Velcro, inspired by mushrooms, that doesn’t shred fabrics and is a lot quieter to tear apart.

Velcro is the official trademarked term for the fastening system that uses tiny hooks and flexible loops to securely attach two surfaces to each other when they’re pressed together. It was invented by George de Mestral back in 1941 after researching why burrs stuck to his clothing during a walk in the woods. The material is generically referred to as hook-and-loop fasteners and while it is undoubtedly convenient it also has its drawbacks. Those small plastic loops can easily attach themselves to less durable fabrics, damaging the material when separated. It’s also not as quiet as zippers or buttons to unfasten as any adult who’s tried to unsuccessfully mitigate the loud ripping sound in a quiet space knows all too well.

There have been variations made to the hook-and-loop recipe over the years, but to ensure a strong hold the hooks themselves have always been made of a rigid plastic which is also what causes damage and all the noise. So that’s where the research team from Wageningen University focused their efforts. In a paper recently published in the journal Biointerphases, the researchers explain how 3D printing was used to develop molds to create flexible surfaces covered in tiny mushroom-inspired structures—a half sphere attached to a stem.

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The redesign provides as much grip as traditional hook-and-loop fasteners but easily pulls away from different type of delicate fabrics without causing any damage in the process. The tiny mushroom structures are also made from a plastic that’s more flexible than the traditional hook design, which means that the deafening rip as two surfaces are pulled apart is considerably muted—a feature that anyone over the age of ten will appreciate. It also means the redesigned fastening system could be used in applications it couldn’t before, such as the military where silence is often critical.

Coming full circle, while Velcro was originally inspired by Mother Nature, this new mushroom-like fastener could facilitate the development of animal-inspired soft robots like artificial geckos that can walk on walls or ceilings, or creatures with flexible robotic tentacles like octopuses that could adhere to various surfaces or grab items without ever causing damage in the process. The Wageningen University researchers aren’t quite ready to commercialize what they’ve created just, but they suspect that further experimentation with the shape of the mushroom structures and length of the stem could yield an even stronger fastener with little to no drawbacks.

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