This is an illustration showing a schematic of slippery surface and its characteristics of repelling many fluids present on the earth, as symbolized by the earth reflected on the liquid drop.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
After a rain, ants, spiders and little frogs find the sweet-smelling pitcher plant irresistible, but the attraction is fatal. The tube-shaped leaves are so slippery that the creatures slide to the bottom where they are devoured by digestive juices.
Inspired by this material in nature's bag of tricks, researchers have created what is being deemed one of the world's most slippery materials, named SLIPS for slippery liquid infused porous surfaces.
The material repels just about any type of liquid, including blood and oil, in conditions ranging from super high pressures to freezing cold temperatures. Potential applications include anti-icing technologies, self-cleaning windows, improved optical devices and pipes for transporting oil.
It could also be used to coat the inside of a jar of jam or ketchup, ending the frustration of trying to get the last drop out, Joanna Aizenberg, a materials scientist at Harvard University who led the research effort, told The Telegraph.
"It is a problem we all face — we have a bottle of sauce and we are trying to get the last bit out but nothing is happening," she told the newspaper. "If we used substance like ours to coat the inside of bottles, it would be possible to get it all out."
To make the material, she and colleagues studied how the leaves of the pitcher plant work — they have a spongy texture filled with water, creating a surface that repels the oily feet of insects — and created a nano/microstructured material filled with a lubricating fluid.
"Like the pitcher plant, SLIPS are slippery for insects, but they are now designed to do much more: they repel a wide variety of liquids and solids," Aizenberg said in a news release.
Check out the video below to see how SLIPS works as a self-cleaning material.
This is an example of the self-cleaning quality of Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surface (SLIPS).
Findings were published Sept. 22 in the journal Nature.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.
As the over-65 population expands, new gadgets and systems will allow seniors to live at home and receive improved healthcare. From sleep-sensing beds to robots piloted by grandchildren, we look at how "health surveillance" can improve quality of life.
Imagine repairing the scratches in your car's paint finish just by shining a special light on them. Or using the same technology to make your scratched-up mobile phone look as good as new. How about removing the unsightly flaws on a varnished tabletop with the glow of a black-light lamp?
These scenarios may sound like the start of a late-night infomercial, but they're actually among the possibilities raised by the development of a new type of "healable" polymer.
"You can think about different ways to realize this technology," Christoph Weder, a materials-science researcher at Switzerland's University of Fribourg, told reporters. "If you think about cars, yes, you can think about your own little fix-it-up tool, but you can also think about combining the instrumentation with car washes."
AMI / CWRU / USARL
Scratches on this polymer can be fixed by shining ultraviolet light on them.
You can't get this stuff at your body shop just yet, though. The material is still years away from commercialization. "Our study is really a fundamental research study. ... We really provide a toolbox to developers who hopefully will take this to the next level," Weder said.
Weder and other researchers describe their molecular "toolbox" in a paper published in this week's issue of the journal Nature. The researchers, led by Case Western Reserve University's Stuart Rowan, say they have developed a new class of materials known as "metallo-supramolecular polymers."
"These polymers have a Napoleon Complex," Rowan explained in a news release. "In reality, they're pretty small, but are designed to behave like they're big by taking advantage of specific weak molecular interactions."
Most polymers consist of long molecular chains, but these metallo-supramolecular polymers consist of short chains that are glued together with metal ions.
If the material is scratched, cut or cracked, that breaks up the polymer. But researchers can "heal" the damage by shining intense ultraviolet light on the material. The irradiation heats up the polymer, causing the molecules to come unglued and flow back together like a liquid. That fills in the cracks and smooths out the surface. When the light is switched off, the material reassembles and solidifies again within seconds.
Zina Deretsky / NSF
This schematic shows how the molecules making up the polymer can be temporarily disassembled under UV light. When the light is turned off, the molecules reassemble themselves.
The light can be focused on a particular area of the polymer surface to fix a defect, while the rest of the finish remains intact and unaffected. The research team also found that the material could be "healed" repeatedly with no ill effects.
Although the experiments were conducted exclusively with ultraviolet light, the researchers are looking into tweaking the technology so that other wavelengths can be used, such as a specific kind of blue light. During the experiments, the team came across some instances where the material was discolored in the course of being healed, but Weder said that was probably due to molecular defects in the material.
Weder said the main ingredients of the polymer are "relatively inexpensive" chemicals.
"I don't think that ultimately cost will be a showstopper," he said, "but I should say again, what we have reported is not something that I expect to be commercialized tomorrow or next year. It's really a first generation of a class of materials that need further refinement."
In a Nature commentary on the research, Nancy Sottos and Jeffrey Moore of the University of Illinois at Urbana said that healable polymers "offer an alternative to the damage-and-discard cycle" that is seen so often in today's consumer society, and represent a first step toward products "that have much greater lifespans than currently available materials."
Andrew Lovinger, polymers program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Materials Research, said the quest for healable materials was part of a wider initiative to create "matter by design."
"There are people working both on the chemistry of creating this kind of matter, on the propoerties and the processing ... and even on the theoretical [side] and cybertools to make that possible," he said. "Having scientists and engineers all working together in all of these areas with that vision may one day lead us to any kind of material or matter we will be able to design from scratch — pardon the pun — and may be able to design for any kind of property."
In addition to Rowan and Weder, co-authors of "Optically Healable Supramolecular Polymers" include Mark Burnworth, Liming Tang and Justin R. Kumpfer of Case Western Reserve University; Andrew J. Duncan and Frederick L. Beyer of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory; and Gina L. Fiore of the Adolphe Merkle Institute and Fribourg Center for Nanomaterlais, University of Fribourg. The reearch paper was based on work supported by the U.S. Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, the Adolphe Merkle Foundation and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.