Lotus effect shakes off dirt

Researchers at German chemical company BASF are developing a spray-on coating that mimics the way lotus leaves repel water droplets and particles of dirt.

The lotus – a flowering wetland plant native to Asia – may not at first glance be of interest to the nanotechnologist. But researchers at German chemical company BASF are developing a spray-on coating that mimics the way lotus leaves repel water droplets and particles of dirt.

The leaves of Lotus plants are coated with minute wax crystals around 1nm in diameter which repel water; droplets falling onto them bead up and, if the surface slopes slightly, will roll off. As a result, the surfaces stay dry even during a heavy shower. What’s more, the droplets pick up small particles of dirt as they roll, so that the lotus leaves are ‘self-cleaning’.

At the nanoscale rough surfaces are more effective in repelling water than smooth ones as there is less contact between water and solid. This rough structure is also essential to the self-cleaning effect – on a smooth surface, water droplets slide rather than roll and do not pick up dirt particles to the same extent.

Wilhelm Barthlott, a botanist from the University of Bonn in Germany, first explained the phenomenon and now owns a patent and the Lotus Effect trademark. BASF’s lotus-effect aerosol spray combines nanoparticles with water repelling polymers such as polypropylene, polyethylene and waxes. It also includes a propellant gas.

As it dries, the coating develops a nanostructure through self-assembly. BASF says the spray particularly suits rough surfaces such as paper, leather, textiles and masonry.

The story is reported on in detail at nanotechweb.org, the Institute of Physics’ global portal for nanotechnology.