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Carnivorous plant inspires new super-slippery material


September 23, 2011

Scientists have created an inexpensive, robust, liquid-repellent surface material, inspired by the inner surface of the pitcher plant

Scientists have created an inexpensive, robust, liquid-repellent surface material, inspired by the inner surface of the pitcher plant

Who doesn't like carnivorous plants? They eat pesky bugs, they look like something out of Flash Gordon, and now it turns out that one of them has inspired a new type of liquid-repellent surface. The inspirational flora is the pitcher plant, which is shaped like - well, like a water pitcher, or perhaps a wide-end-up trumpet. When insects step onto its slippery inner surface, they lose their footing and fall down into a pool of collected rainwater in its base, where they are digested. Scientists from Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have copied the structure of that inner surface and come up with a material that resists not only most liquids, but also ice and bacteria, and it does so under a wide range of conditions.

The secret of the pitcher plant's surface lies in the fact that it does take in a small amount of water, which it keeps in a thin layer on the very outside. In the same way that car tires can hydroplane on an only slightly-wet road, this layer of liquid keeps the oil on insect feet from making secure contact with the plant's actual surface.

The SEAS researchers copied this concept, by infusing an unnamed nanostructured porous material with a lubricating fluid. The resulting technology is known as SLIPS, which stands for Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surfaces.

Previous experiments with liquid-repellent surfaces have replicated the surface of the lotus leaf, the microtextured surface of which creates a cushion of air that causes water to bead up. According to SEAS, however, man-made versions of this surface don't perform well with organic or complex liquids, they're expensive to create, they don't stand up to physical damage or extreme conditions, and the liquid droplets tend to soak in instead of rolling away.

On the other hand, besides shrugging off the previously-mentioned substances, SLIPS is said to be inexpensive, self-healing, and able to work in high pressure environments, humid conditions, and freezing temperatures. Possible applications include self-cleaning windows, anti-fouling coatings for ships' hulls, ice- and graffiti-resistant products, and low-friction linings for pipelines and medical tubing.

SEAS is presently in the process of seeking a patent for the technology.

The research was published yesterday in the journal Nature.

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

Who doesn\'t like carnivorous plants? I don\'t they creep me out. But cool tech anyway.


If paints can be manufactured using this technique,it will be a success.

Anumakonda Jagadeesh

This could be used to minimize ice build up on the leading edge of aircraft wings, which would significantly lower skin friction drag and therefore fuel consumption. Or Make for a really good slide :-)


Who knows if the researchers read Gizmag, but it seems like a pretty good application for this would be weather-resistant clothing. Durable waterproof coatings of fabrics paired with Goretex tend to work pretty well for a while, but being outdoors implies getting dirty (or being in extreme conditions), and something like this that could repel dirt/water/ice would be fantastic.

Jon Davis

I've noticed that I can't leave paperwork on top of my iPad. After reading this article, I was curious about it. I have a small lucite container that I placed on the surface of the ipad. I loaded up a bubble level app and started tilting the ipad until the lucite container started moving. It was somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 degrees. Below 2 degrees, it slides very slowly. Over 3 degrees, it slides at a very noticeable speed.

I have no idea what the composition of the iPad's surface is (mine is the new iPad), but in terms of the slip test, it seems to be quite slippery.

Another article on this same material is described here:

"Liquids from oil and water to blood all roll right off the material when it's tilted at merely 2 degrees, compared to 5 to 30 degrees for other surfaces."

That's impressive, I guess. Solids sliding off at 2 degrees is also impressive to me.

Victor Engel
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