Old, clogged pipes or pipes that have cracked from ice cause leaks that waste untold amounts of fresh water. And along with fresh water, we lose money every year as we try to fix the aging water infrastructure. But a new material developed with inspiration from a carnivorous plant could help change that.
The Telegraph reports that Professor Joanna Aizenberg, a materials scientists at Harvard University in Cambridge and colleagues took a close look at the carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plants. These plants have super slippery surfaces, and when bugs land on the leaf, they slide right down into the digestive juices.
"They found that the plant's leaves have a spongelike texture that are infused with water, which repels the sticky oils that are produced by insects' feet. The scientists, whose research is published in the scientific journal Nature, immobilised a "lubricating film" inside the pores of a spongelike layer of Teflon to produce a smooth and highly slippery surface. By carefully selecting the lubricating film, the substance chemically repelled other liquids. The result can be compared to the effect of bringing together the poles of two magnets."
The scientists think the material could be useful for everything from self-cleaning surfaces (minimizing the use of cleaners) to coating the inside of condiment bottles so every last drop of sauce drips out (minimizing food waste). It could also be use inside pipes as it repels both water and oily materials, which could help reduce clogs and even cracks caused by ice. The scientists also have their eye on its use for the oil industry:
"Professor Aizenberg added: "The lubricating film is locked in place so it does not mix with liquids placed on the surface. By carefully selecting the lubricant we impregnate the pores with, it means we can repel a broad spectrum of liquids. There are a lot of potential applications for this, but among the ones I am most excited about are use in the energy industry for making oil flow more efficiently through pipes for example."
Well, that use we aren't so fond of, but we do think the other possibilities are intriguing. The question, of course, is how safe is the material if it is going to be around food or water, and how recyclable is it. If coating bottles means they can't be recycled, then it likely isn't worth the trade-off.
Still, the biomimicry aspect of the discovery is very interesting. There is no end to the examples Nature provides us for how to do things better.