Nov 22, 2016 | By Tess

If you’ve ever been licked by a cat, you’ll know that their tiny tongues are actually quite rough, with a texture comparable to that of sandpaper. Unlike sandpaper, however, a cat’s tongue is abrasive because its surface is covered with tiny backwards facing spines called papillae, which have a number of useful functions for the cat, such as efficient grooming, scraping meat from their prey’s bones, and more. Recently, cat owner and mechanical engineering doctoral candidate Alexis Noel decided to explore the physiology of a cat’s tongue with the help of 3D printing to see if its spine composition could be appropriated for other applications such as soft robotics.

Noel’s research, which was largely conducted at the Hu Biolocomotion Lab at Georgia Tech, was presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics (DFD), which is being hosted in Portland, Oregon. Notably, in her investigation of cat tongues and their functions, Noel actually 3D printed an artificial cat tongue at 400% scale for testing purposes.

What initially got Noel interested in recreating and exploring cat tongue functionalities was when she observed her own cat’s tongue get stuck to a microfiber blanket while licking it. While helping to remove the blanket from the cat’s mouth, she noticed the tiny spines that were stuck to the blanket and something clicked. As she explained, “When the cat's tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further. Like a heat-seeking missile for snags, the hook's mobility allows the cat to better tease tangles apart.”

With that as a starting point, Noel and her team of researchers decided to explore the cat’s tongue in a more in-depth way. Using macro and high-speed videography equipment they were able to zoom in a capture the animal’s unique tongue structure, observing its intricate papillae. As mentioned, a big part of the research involved 3D printing a large scale (400%) cat tongue mimic, which the researchers were able to test on various surfaces.

According to Noel, “Both the cat tongue and mimic are very good at cleaning and removing tangles in fur samples. We also discovered that the cat tongue is self-cleaning it's easy to remove hair beneath the spines by simply brushing the tongue from tip to end.”

Why is this research important? Well, being able to recreate a structure that mimics a cat tongue’s papillae could have applications within the field of soft robotics, as researchers are constantly in search of ways to create soft materials that are capable of gripping surfaces. Aside from soft robotics, the 3D printed cat tongue mimic could be used as a model to create an easy-to-clean hairbrush, or could even be used to develop a wound cleaning tool.

The next step in the research will be to further analyze how the spacing between spines on the cat’s tongue have an impact on frictional resistance. This would allow them to create a 3D printed mimic that could help develop a hairbrush specifically “suitable for human grooming”. Noel is also hoping to expand the research to include the tongues of lions, tigers, and other large cats.

For now, Noel is hoping to talk to beauty specialists and medical device companies about her research to see what the potential applications could be for the 3D printed cat tongue mimic. “We’ve already submitted a technology disclosure form and intend to file a patent within the next year,” she commented.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Jocelyn Thelen wrote at 12/8/2016 7:20:42 PM:

I am looking for an artificial cat tongue to teach an orphaned kitten how to groom itself. This site is interesting as it recreates the actual natural mechanism that I seek. All available grooming tools are huge, unlike a real cat tongue.

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