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Buzz-worthy breakthrough sees innovative self-cleaning tech inspired by insect wings

01 June 2023

A deeper understanding of how insects keep their bodies clean and free from pollutants using water droplets could lead to significant advancements in the performance of self-cleaning devices.

Image: Dr Sreehari Perumanath
Image: Dr Sreehari Perumanath

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh's School of Engineering have shed light on the precise mechanisms by which these droplets meet, jump and roll from insect wings and plants – removing contaminants as they do so. 

The team used advanced computer simulations, powered by the supercomputer ARCHER2, to investigate how the self-cleaning mechanism operates on cicadas' wings. 

They discovered that pollutants can be eliminated in two different ways, depending on the interplay of forces of attraction between the water droplets, contaminants, and the surface molecules of the insect wings.

In cases where the force of the water droplet exceeds the force pinning the contaminant to the surface, the pollutant is absorbed by the droplet which then rolls or jumps off the cicada’s wings. 

In other cases, the merging of multiple droplets generates lifting forces that can catapult contaminants off the wings, forming a mesmerising droplet shape resembling a hot air balloon.

Dr Sreehari Perumanath, the lead author of the study, emphasises the broad potential of this research for future exploration: “We now have a better understanding of how surfaces can be passively decontaminated without using a power source. This work has a broad scope for future research and the development of new experiments for self-cleaning surfaces.”

“This research reveals the critical parameters required for contaminants to be removed effectively from surfaces and opens up new avenues for exploiting precision assembly in future electronics and biosensors,” co-author Dr Matthew Borg adds.

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