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Solving big problems with microstructures

Sometimes the answers to big questions hide in microscopic places. Say, on the foot of a gecko, the ridge of a lotus leaf, or even the technicolor wing of a butterfly. Dr. Hendrik Holscher is a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, and for a large portion of his career, he’s looked to nature to solve some of mankind’s biggest problems.

“In thinking about how best to address human problems like pollution and oil spills, we have turned our lens to the diverse world of flora and fauna,” he explained. Holscher is the project lead behind Nanofur, a substance that mimics the hairy microstructures found on various plant and animal life. It is produced with a highly scalable and competitive fabrication model. The result is a water-repellent, highly oil-absorbent material that eliminates pollutants without damaging the surrounding ecosystem.
“Various creatures contain multifunctional surfaces that are covered with dense nano-hairs,” said Holscher. “This type of material is incredibly fascinating to the scientific community, as it has the potential for real world applications like self-cleaning, air retention, and oil-water separation.”

Traditional methods to clean up oil, such as using sawdust or plant fibers, are ineffective because they also absorb large amounts of water. It may capture the pollutants, but it also captures everything else with little-to-no control. With Nanofur, only the oil is skimmed from the surface.

Without getting too deep into the hairy details, Nanofur has such a strong repellency that it is still covered by air when pressed underwater. “This effect is called air-retention,” said Holscher, “because items coated with this substance can be submerged underwater and do not get wet.”

The technology is so game-changing, researchers are hustling just to imagine the potential uses of this miraculous material. It reduces the drag in fluidics, waterproofs anything, and can syphon oil with pinpoint accuracy.

Holscher and his team are stationed in Karlsruhe, and are excited to bridge the gap between experimenting in the lab and implementing in the real world. A video on their website shows the researchers using Salvinia — a type of aquatic fern with particularly hairy leaves — to extract a blot of oil from a petri dish. Instantly, the oil clings to the leaf like a magnet, and the bowl is left sparkling clean.

In Holscher’s line of work, he isn’t exactly behind a desk. It’s one of the reasons he needs to be able to take his technology on the go. “Most of the time, I’m in the field, or pacing around the lab. With my ThinkPad, I’m able to take notes, render 3D sketches, and quickly send my findings to my associates.”

When giving lectures at KIT, the ThinkPad’s mobility and high performance makes teaching easy for Holscher. When looking for an engaging way to interact with his students, Holscher said his ThinkPad is an inspiring teaching tool and an essential all-in-one device.

The Nanofur team is working on a commercial prototype, and while they certainly have a myriad of ideas about how the product could be used, they want to hear from the public. “As we connect with partners for product development, we hope that people begin to send us their own weird and wonderful concepts, because we truly believe the possibilities are endless.”

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