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Since coming to the University of Missouri as an assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering four years ago, Hao Li has successfully “borrowed ideas from nature to design materials with an engineering approach” in his nanotechnology-related research.

Promising preliminary results in Li’s study of biomimetic nanocomposites have paid off, as he recently received notification that he is the College of Engineering’s latest recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award for: “Fabrication of surface modified hydroxyapatite nanofibers and their composites.”

“Many things in nature have natural nanostructures, including bones, teeth and shells,” said Li explaining the inspiration for his research focus. “Bone is a mixture of minerals, collagen and water. I am looking at novel nanocomposites based on such fundamentals as human bone and tooth composites.”

Hydroxyapatite, the main inorganic constituent of bone, is made up of calcium apatite and carbonate. Li hopes to use calcium phosphate — a brittle mineral compound naturally existing in bones — and increase its strength one hundred times over with nanofabrication techniques to discover novel nanofillers and nanocomposites that have biomedical, especially orthopedic, applications.

Though the initial application of the research will be to produce bone screws and plates for use in fractures, Li has additional applications in mind.

“Eighty percent of orthopedic products are metal,” said Li. “Inflammation and infections may involve a second surgery to remove the metal implants. It is difficult to mimic nature because there are hierarchical structures within bone. We need to figure out the mechanics.”

“There are still many uncertainties,” Li continued. “But based on my experience, I don’t think people will be able to exactly mimic bone structures. A better approach may be to achieve superior non-metal materials based on the understanding of bone mechanics and structures using innovative engineering approaches.”

The researcher insists that though it is in his character to be persistent — this is the second time he has applied for a CAREER award — his research accomplishments and the NSF funding are directly related to the support he has received from his many colleagues at the university and MU alumnus and orthopedic doctor, Kenneth Lambert.

Li is delighted that the research funded by the award could potentially lead to the fabrication of non-metal orthopedic implants.

“I’m motivated to help people. That’s what makes me happy and gives me self-satisfaction,” said Li.



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