New Technology Inspired by the Lotus Leaf

Inside Dr. Bharat Bhushan’s lab at the Ohio State University one might find some very average looking pieces of stainless steel mesh. So normal in fact one might consider them garbage. In truth these pieces of mesh are rather like Super Man assuming his alter ego Clark Kent as they might be the new super hero of environmental clean up efforts.

Water can pass through the mesh, but oil doesn’t. The real super hero here isn’t the mesh, but rather a nanotechnology inspired by nature, a coating applied to the mesh. With this coating a mixture of oil and water is able to be poured onto the mesh—the water passes cleaning through into one beaker while the oil is easily poured off the mesh and into another.

The new nanotechnologies are under development at the Ohio State University and have been written about twice in the Nature Scientific Reports journal. As one would guess, cleaning up oil spills is one immediately imagined application of the technology, but it might also be used for tracking oil deposits underground.

“If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net,” said Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State.
But what does all this have to do with Lotus leaves?

For years his work has been inspired by the humble lotus leaf whose surface naturally repels water, but not oil. By using a polymer embedded with a surfactant—the part of soap that gives it its cleaning power—Dr. Bhushan was able to create this coating.

Dr. Bhushan explained that some combinations of ingredients he tried actually bind to oil instead of repelling it, which would be useful for cleaning up oil spills.

Another exciting aspect of the technology is that will probably be inexpensive to reproduce—maybe less than a dollar per square foot.

Jody Victor