Oil spill-absorbing material inspired by cactus needles


August 8, 2013

Cactus needles draw moisture to the plant, just like the new material draws in oil droplets from the water (Photo: Shutterstock)

Cactus needles draw moisture to the plant, just like the new material draws in oil droplets from the water (Photo: Shutterstock)

When an oil spill occurs at sea, there are already a number of possible options for gathering the oil that floats in a layer on the water’s surface. Some of the oil also forms into tiny suspended droplets, however, which have proven much more difficult to gather. Now, Chinese scientists have developed what could be a solution – and it owes a debt to the humble cactus needle.

Although it may seem that the only purpose of cactus needles is to protect the plants from peoples’ bare feet, they also help provide the cacti with water. They do so by collecting moisture from the desert air, which forms into droplets and is carried to the base of each needle via surface tension. There, it can be absorbed through pores in the plant’s surface.

A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences has recently taken that same principle, and applied it to a material that shows promise as a means of absorbing the oil spill droplets.

At first glance, the material appears to simply have a rough surface. Upon closer inspection, however, it can be seen that the surface actually consists of an array of tiny conical copper spikes. These spikes are affixed to a flexible synthetic substrate that is known for its tendency to absorb oil, but not water.

When the material is placed in oil-contaminated water in a lab, micron-sized droplets gather on the spikes and are then drawn to the substrate – just like the water droplets do on cactus needles. It’s reportedly able to remove up to 99 percent of the droplets from water samples, and it gathers oil continuously.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences via

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
1 Comment

Test & then mass produce for use I select locales LA, Alaska, FL, CA, OR, TX, AL MS for oil spills alone. Radical.

Stephen Russell
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