Bio-Inspired Synthetic Ivory as a Sustainable Material for Piano Keys


Ivory has traditionally been the material of choice for piano key surfaces because it provides a desirable grip for the fingers and has a characteristic warm color and luster. However, as it has become largely unavailable due to the vulnerable status and corresponding protection of elephants, there is request for an alternative, sustainable material with comparable functional properties. The global demand for ivory has caused the population of African forest elephants to shrink in the past decade by 60%, mainly due to poaching.

To obtain such a material, we synthesized a composite that is chemically identical to natural ivory. The synthesis consists of a solution-based process that starts from powders of gelatin and hydroxylapatite (see Figure). The Biocomposite is fabricated from abundant materials in an environmentally friendly process and is furthermore biodegradable. The material is sturdy, machinable, and allows to match the grip of keys to the preferences of individual pianists as well as the ivory color (cf. Figure). Furthermore, during the fabrication process pigments can be incorporated into the matrix to achieve virtually any color, including color patterns. In the same manner, additives such as antibacterial compounds or markers yielding fluorescent or DNA-based fingerprints for identification of the material may be added.

Possible applications extend beyond our use case of piano keys and could conceivably include jewelry, and alternatives to hydrocarbon-based plastics for applications that require superior tactile properties or biodegradability.


Dieter Fischer, Sarah C. Parks, Jochen Mannhart

Sustainability 11 (2019) 6538.

Article (in German language) - "Max Planck Forschung" 01/2020

"Elfenbein aus dem Reagenzglas"



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