Mar 30, 2018 | By Tess

Researchers from the University of Southern California have drawn inspiration from nature for the development of materials that could help clean up oil spills. The team has used 3D printing to recreate the microstructure composition of floating fern leaves for this purpose.

(Image: Forest and Kim Starr / Wikipedia)

Salvinia molesta is a type of aquatic fern native to Brazil which is known for floating on water. The plant’s leaves are made up of unique protrusions which the researchers liken to eggbeater-like shapes. This structure reportedly gives the fern leaves “super-hydrophic” properties—in other words, they repel water very effectively.

“I think the reason the plant’s surface is super-hydrophobic is because it lives on the water and requires air to survive,” explained Yang Yang, a postdoctoral researcher working with Associate Professor Yong Chen on the project. “If it weren’t for the long-term evolution of this plant, the plant could be submerged in water and would die.”

It was this hydrophobic structure that drew the attention of researchers from the University of Southern California. If they could recreate the structure, they believed they could make materials with the ability to separate oil from water, which could have a major impact on cleaning up man-made disasters such as oil spills.

(Image: Yang Yang)

To recreate the fern leaf’s intricate micro-texture, the researchers created a similar structure using 3D printing technologies. Amazingly, the team was able to 3D print the unique eggbeater structure at the same scale as it exists in nature.

The team didn’t use FDM 3D printing to accomplish this. Instead, they turned to a highly precise and advanced process known as immersed surface accumulation 3D printing to create the hydrophobic micro-structures. By integrating the ability to both repel water and absorb oil into the 3D printed material, the researchers have presented an amazingly innovative process for cleaning bodies of water that are exposed to oil spills.

“We tried to create one functional surface texture that would be able to separate oil from water,” Chen added. “Basically, we modified the surface of the materials by using a 3D printing approach that helped us achieve some interesting surface properties.”

So far, the team has successfully 3D printed a prototype of the oil-absorbing material, and the technique for separating oil from water could present a much simpler and more energy-efficient approach tha existing methods, which require electric fields or mechanically applied pressure to decontaminate the water.

Chen’s team adds that the 3D printed eggbeater structure is capable of “microdroplet manipulation,” which could make it suitable for medical applications. For instance, a robotic gripper made from the material could deposit microdroplets of blood into different chemical mixtures for improving the efficiency of blood tests.

Xiangjia Li, a PhD student on Chen’s team, said one example of high-performance microdroplet manipulation could lead to more efficient blood analyses for patients. “You can have a robotic arm with a gripper made to mimic Salvinia effect,” one of the researchers said. “No matter which way you move the arm, the gripping force is so large that a droplet will stay attached.”

The innovative 3D printing study was recently published in the journal Advanced Materials.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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