It’s been a mystery: how can our teeth withstand such an enormous amount of pressure, over many years, when tooth enamel is only about as strong as glass? A new study by Prof. Herzl Chai of Tel Aviv University’s School of Mechanical Engineering and his colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and George Washington University gives the answer.
The researchers applied varying degrees of mechanical pressure to hundreds of extracted teeth, and studied what occurred on the surface and deep inside them. The study, published in the May 5, 2009, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, shows that it is the highly-sophisticated structure of our teeth that keeps them in one piece â€” and that structure holds promising clues for aerospace engineers as they build the aircraft and space vehicles of the future.
“Teeth are made from an extremely sophisticated composite material which reacts in an extraordinary way under pressure,” says Prof. Chai. “Teeth exhibit graded mechanical properties and a cathedral-like geometry, and over time they develop a network of micro-cracks which help diffuse stress. This, and the tooth’s built-in ability to heal the micro-cracks over time, prevents it from fracturing into large pieces when we eat hard food, like nuts.”