What Can Snakes Teach Us About Friction?
To improve the design of surfaces that rely on “slip and grip,” such as footwear and prosthetic joints, one researcher is turning to one of nature’s most incredible materials: snake skin.

_Hisham Abdel-Aal

Abdel-Aal is an associate teaching professor in the College of Engineering.

If you want to know how to make a sneaker with better traction, just ask a snake. That’s the theory driving the research of Hisham Abdel-Aal, an associate teaching professor in the College of Engineering who is studying snake skin to help engineers improve the design of textured surfaces.

Abdel-Aal has analyzed 350 complete skins shed from 40 different species over nearly a decade. In a new paper in the Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials, he explains how this “natural data” can be ported into the design of commercial products that slip and stick — a process called “bio-inspired surface engineering.”

Abdel-Aal has published his datasets so any engineers could use them, and many already are. Collaborators in Colombia designed and tested a surface for a prosthetic hip joint guided by the tribological data gleaned from Abdel-Aal’s analysis of Royal Python skin. Based on the work of Abdel-Aal and his collaborators, researchers in the United Kingdom are developing texturing schemes for tool inserts used in dry machining of titanium. These designs maximize friction while minimizing residual heat. And German engineers recently published work on snake-inspired cylinder liners that allow the surfaces to minimize friction whether moving forward or backward.