When diverse professionals join forces and focus on understanding aspects of nature, the results can be impressive.
Written by Eduardo Souza
Popularly known as the lotus, the aquatic species Nelumbo nucifera has a useful particularity. Its leaves are self-cleaning, or ultra-hydrophobic. This means that no particles of dirt or water adhere to its leaf, which is especially useful in the humid and muddy environments where the plant typically grows. However, this effect does not derive from a perfectly smooth surface or a resinous layer on the leaves. The lotus is, in fact, full of tiny folds that reduce the area of the contact surface and repel all the particles that try to adhere there. The lotus effect has been studied by nanotechnologists in order to apply this same effect to products, such as surfaces, paints, fabrics, and tiles that can easily clean themselves. As trivial as this may seem, when we think of the resources applied to cleaning skyscraper glass or even of the reduction in photovoltaic energy generation due to dust on solar panels, we can get a sense of the infinite possibilities that hydrophobic surfaces could represent.
Nature, over billions of years, has developed adaptive solutions that are beginning to be understood by us with new technologies applied to the needs of areas such as the construction industry. When professionals such as scientists, biologists, engineers, architects, and others join forces and focus on understanding aspects of nature, with an empathetic and respectful view, the results can be impressive.
Another similar example comes from the oceans. The US Naval Research Office has asked a scientist to look for strategies to reduce the use of toxic and expensive antifouling paints commonly used on docks, designed to prevent algae proliferation. The inspiration for the solution came from shark skin. When examining sharks’ dermal denticles, researchers found that they were arranged in a diamond pattern, in a way that discouraged microorganisms from settling down. The microorganisms do not die; they simply have no interest in remaining on the surface, due to the uncomfortable geometry. Engineers developed the technology Sharklet from this reasoning. The developed artificial pattern is extremely small—about 3 microns high and 2 microns wide—and cannot be seen with the naked eye or felt by touch, but it is there, protecting the surface from against bacteria and other microorganisms. Studies have even suggested that such surfaces may prevent the growth and spread of disease-causing bacteria, including the feared superbug Staphylococcus aureus, which are resistant to antibiotics commonly used to treat staph infections and are known to cause serious hospital infections.