Plant Inspired Waterproofing?

A floating weed notorious for clogging waterways has inspired a waterproof coating for boats and submarines.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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Nov 13, 2011

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, ERIC GUINTHER

Salvinia molesta, a floating Brazilian fern that has spread to the Americas and Australia, is a well-known hazard for the world’s waterways, with its growth causing massive clogs. But now researchers have found a way to put it, or at least the hairs that cover its surface, to good use.

The hairs serve the plant by trapping air and helping it float on water, but the Ohio State University engineers who have recreated the texture and suggest it could serve a waterproofing function for boats and submarines to reduce drag while boosting buoyancy and stability.

“The Salvinia leaf is an amazing hybrid structure. The sides of the hairs are hydrophobic—in nature, they’re covered with wax—which prevents water from touching the leaves and traps air beneath the eggbeater shape at the top. The trapped air gives the plant buoyancy,” Bharat Bhushan, a mechanical engineer at Ohio...

The synthetic coating mimicked this structure, with plastic hairs that were hydrophobic at the base, but hydrophilic at the tips, such that water could not go between the hairs, and simply stayed on the top. The researchers published their results in the November 1 issue of the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science.

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