For years, scientists have been inspired by nature to innovate solutions to tricky problems, even oil spills—manmade disasters with devastating environmental and economic consequences. A new USC study takes a cue from leaf structure to fabricate material that can separate oil and water, which could lead to safer and more efficient oil spill clean-up methods.
In addition, the material is capable of “microdroplet manipulation,” or the transfer of miniature volumes of liquid. Droplet-based microfluidics is a tool used in various applications like cell cultures, chemical synthesis, and DNA sequencing.
Using 3-D printing, Associate Professor Yong Chen and his research team at the Daniel J. Epstein School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have successfully mimicked a biological phenomenon in plant leaves called “Salvinia effect.” Their study focuses on a floating fern native to South America called Salvinia molesta. The unique leaves are super-hydrophobic, meaning “water-fearing” and retain a surrounding air pocket when submerged in water due to the presence of water-resistant hairs.
“I think the reason the plant’s surface is super-hydrophobic is because it lives on the water and requires air to survive,” Yang Yang, a postdoctoral researcher on Chen’s team, said. “If it weren’t for the long-term evolution of this plant, the plant could be submerged in water and would die.”
thumbnail courtesy of phys.org