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Nature Inspires Net To Fight Back Against Oil Spills

The net could cost just $1 per square foot, according to researchers at Ohio State University

Clean Up Crews Hard At Work via Flickr User John Kim

Previous oil spills have brought to light that our limited responses to such catastrophes are exceedingly expensive and often fall short of the intended goals. The longer an oil spill persists, the wider it spreads, and the deadlier it is to local communities, wildlife, and habitats.

Researchers at The Ohio State University have created a stainless steel mesh that can separate oil from water. They believe that if this technology is scaled up, it could drastically lower the time and money it costs to clean up an oil spill. Created with non-toxic and relatively inexpensive materials, researchers estimate that a larger mesh net could be created for less than $1 per square foot.

In a demonstration, researchers mixed blue-colored water with oil dyed red. The mixture was poured onto the mesh, which allowed the blue water to filter through, while causing the red oil to collect on top.

Image via YouTube screencapture

The technology is part of a collection of nature-inspired nanotechnologies under development at Ohio State University. This particular invention was inspired by the bumpy texture of lotus leaves that naturally repel water, but not oil. The undetectable mesh coating flips those properties to do exactly the opposite, using bumps created by a fine spray of silica nanoparticles, covered with a polymer embedded with molecules of surfactant—a primary ingredient in soap and detergent.

"We've studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems," said Bharat Bhushan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State. "Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems."

"Nature reaches a limit of what it can do," added research partner Philip Brown. "To repel synthetic materials like oils, we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn't have access to."

It seems only poetic that the movement to reduce the noxious effects of oil spills is being inspired by nature itself.

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