Lotus leaves and gecko hairs - how nature makes materials

19 February 2014

From lotus leaves to geckos' feet, the intricate structures of natural materials still hold many secrets that intrigue humans, and can benefit them.

On 20 February at a Sydney Ideas lecture at the University of Sydney, Professor Ullrich Steiner, the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of the Physics of Materials at the University of Cambridge, will describe the latest research based on recreating the extraordinary properties of natural materials.

"Given the limited resources biological organisms have to build the materials they are made of, the range of properties of natural materials is mind-boggling. Very often they are still not easily surpassed by man-made substitutes," said Professor Steiner.

"One important aspect of many natural materials is their intricate structure, extending often from a few nanometers to macroscopic dimensions."

Professor Steiner will discuss and visually present some recent work that illustrates how we can learn from and copy nature to make structured materials.

Professor Steiner, in collaboration with Pieter van der Wal, also from the University of Cambridge, used the inspiration of the lotus leaf to create surface coatings that stay clean and dry.

Water and dirt do not penetrate the leaves of a lotus plant. By adapting its structure using Teflon, the researchers were able to create a self-cleaning surface. Just one of its possible applications would be in medicine - ensuring that every last drop of an expensive medicine was expelled from the surface of its container and used by the patient.

Professor Steiner has also been involved in research adapting the 'egg carton' structure of the wings of the Swallowtail butterfly.

The intense, iridescent colour of its wings, like those of many other butterflies and beetles, is created by light bouncing off the microscopic layers of cuticle and air.

Using nanotechnology, researchers can reproduce these butterfly wing scales. Among the possible applications would be using the structure as a way to securely encrypt information on banknotes.

Researchers are also fascinated by how the millions of miniscule hairs on the feet of geckos are responsible for their impressive climbing ability. Scientists are working on replicating this mechanism, for example by producing a self-cleaning adhesive tape.

Professor Ullrich Steiner is based at the Cavendish Laboratory, Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and is the current Chairman of the Editorial Board of the RSC journal Soft Matter.

He is the current Australian Academy of Science Selby Fellow.

The talk is co-presented with the University of Sydney's School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science.

Event details:

What: How Nature Makes Materials, Sydney Ideas talk. When: Thursday 20 February, 2014, 6 to 7.30pm.

Where: Law School LT 101, Level 1, Sydney Law School, Eastern Avenue, University of Sydney.

Cost: Free but registration required.

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