Harnessing Lightning Bolts to Build Artificial Organs

Lightning-carved channels in plastic form scaffolding for tiny blood vessels

Lightning Trigger

A Lichtenberg figure being created by a tap from a nail. In just a few hundred nanoseconds, electrons trapped in plastic exit suddenly as a bright, branching spark. You can buy the resulting figures at teslamania.com.Mike Walker

Lightning bolts may not bring Frankenstein to life, but their blood vessel-like patterns could form the foundation for artificial organs. That would rely on a known lab trick that imprints electricity patterns inside plastic blocks.

It's known that driving a nail into one end of an electrically charged block results in an electric discharge running throughout the plastic. PopSci previously examined this process of trapping lightning, so to speak.

Now researchers at Texas A&M University hope that those pretty feathery patterns could find a use, channeling bodily fluids through artificial organs. Discovery News reports that the lighting-carved tunnels resemble veins and arteries near the spot where nails are driven into the blocks, while the patterns deeper within the block appear more like smaller capillaries.

Tests with biodegradable plastic blocks created a network of potential blood vessels within seconds. That beats the current method of painstakingly building 3-D artificial channels one layer at a time. Such research also shows that scientists need not recreate nature's patterns exactly, as long as they can use adequate methods to build functional networks of blood vessels or even nerve cells.

However, don't expect your ready-made artificial organs to arrive too quickly. The biodegradable plastic blocks can form the scaffolding for actual cells to build on, but scientists have yet to implant such cells and attempt to build a functioning organ in this manner.