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How Weird Water-Phobic Materials May Help Save The Earth

Engineers can now create materials that repel liquids so well they’re called superhydrophobic, i.e. they have a serious water phobia. With funding from the National Science Foundation, this booming area of research has the potential to benefit society in a big way. (Plus, it makes for amazing visuals.)

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1. Pluck fresh drinking water from the air

A beetle in the Namib Desert of Africa uses its textured back to gather drinking water from the fog-filled morning wind. If researchers can perform some beetle biomimicry, that would mean a new source for water in dry areas.
James Anderson (CC BY-NC-SA http://2.0)

A beetle in the Namib Desert of Africa uses its textured back to gather drinking water from the fog-filled morning wind. If researchers can perform some beetle biomimicry, that would mean a new source for water in dry areas.

2. Quickly test for tainted water

Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Thomas M. Schutzius, Constantine M. Megaridis, "Wettability patterning for high-rate, pumpless fluid transport on open, non-planar microfluidic platforms," Lab Chip 14, 1538-1550 (2014) -- Reproduced by permission of The Roya

Plastic strips with superhydrophilic (a.k.a. water-loving) centers and superhydrophobic surroundings can combine or separate fluids and have the potential to serve as platforms for new diagnostic tests. Doctors could use the disposable strips to field-test water samples for E. coli, for example.

3. More efficient cooling for power plants

Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

Superhydrophobic coatings speed up the rate at which water vapor can condense on a surface, which could save energy and water by making cooling equipment used in power plants more efficient.

4. Reduce possible medical contamination

Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Thomas M. Schutzius, Constantine M. Megaridis, "Wettability patterning for high-rate, pumpless fluid transport on open, non-planar microfluidic platforms," Lab Chip 14, 1538-1550 (2014) -- Reproduced by permission of The Roya

As superhydrophobic materials become cheaper, their potential as disposable medical devices grows. Tiny amounts of fluid, such as blood, can be mixed and measured on a paper strip, and then discarded.

5. Laugh in the face of gravity

Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

At the micro-scale, who needs a pump? Surface tension causes liquids to travel uphill on the path of least resistance.

6. Make airplane wings impervious to ice

James C. Bird, Rajeev Dhiman, Hyuk-Min Kwon and Kripa K. Varanasi

Engineers are looking to nature to learn how to reduce the time it takes for a water droplet to bounce away from a surface. The less time water spends in contact with a cold surface like an airplane wing, the less likely it is to freeze and ice over.

7. Reduce corrosion

James C. Bird, Rajeev Dhiman, Hyuk-Min Kwon and Kripa K. Varanasi

Less contact time also means less opportunity for water or toxins within the water to degrade or dirty surfaces. This could mean longer-lasting roofs and solar panels.

8. Lead to even weirder, bigger ideas

Constantine M. Megaridis, Aritra Ghosh, Ranjan Ganguly, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

Humans have been experimenting with water for thousands of years and we're still finding new ways to use this most essential resource. Know of some other ways engineers are making water work for us? Tell us about them!

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