A new kind of artificial enamel is substantially stronger than the real thing

And it's a perfect fit.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Dental instrument for tooth extractionalexisdc/iStock

Enamel is an incredible material. It's sturdy enough so that humans can chew but flexible enough that it doesn't crack with every bite. Unfortunately, humans can not regenerate it. Once lost or damaged, it's gone forever.

What if scientists, however, could come up with a similar material? It would have many varied applications even beyond dentistry.

Well, researchers have achieved just that, according to a report published by Science this month.

Tough artificial enamel

To make this artificial enamel, the scientists had to mimic the structure of real enamel by bringing calcium, phosphorus, and oxygen atoms together in a pattern that could form crystalline wires. These wires are responsible for enamel's elasticity and hardness. 

In the new process, scientists used high temperatures to coax the wires into a form resembling that of real enamel. To do this, they used wires of hydroxyapatite, the same material that real enamel consists of.

To ensure the new material's sturdiness, the researchers further encased the wires in a versatile metal-based coating. And therein lies the scientists' secret: a magical coating that provides the necessary protection to make this artificial enamel strong and is at the same time malleable.

Once the team had finished designing and engineering their new enamel, they put it to the test. They attempted to indent both the artificial and real enamel with a pointy diamond tip and compared how the two materials handled the injury.

Outperforming the real thing

They quickly discovered that the artificial version outperformed its original counterpart in six different important areas such as elasticity and the ability to absorb vibrations. So, is the fake enamel ready to be delivered to dentists everywhere?

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Not yet. Additional studies need to be undertaken to confirm how well the material bonds to natural enamel, a process necessary for tooth repair. In addition, the new enamel's development method, involving extreme temperatures and the use of a diamond saw to cut the material, is still too complex to be undertaken in dentists' offices.

Still, it's an important first step in the right direction, one that unless we become crocodiles constantly growing new teeth, will be needed for the future of our tooth maintenance.

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