The small piece of stainless steel mesh in a lab at The Ohio State University could make a big difference for future environmental cleanups.

Water passes through the mesh but oil doesn’t, thanks to a nearly invisible oil-repelling coating on its surface. Oil collected on top of the mesh rolls off easily into a separate beaker when scientists tilt the mesh.

“If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net,” said Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State.

Deepwater horizon oil spill - satellite image
Deepwater horizon oil spill seen from space.

The work was partly inspired by lotus leaves, whose bumpy surfaces naturally repel water but not oil. To create a coating that did the opposite, Bhushan and postdoctoral researcher Philip Brown chose to cover a bumpy surface with a polymer embedded with molecules of surfactant – the stuff that gives cleaning power to soap and detergent.

The silica, surfactant, polymer, and stainless steel are all non-toxic and relatively inexpensive, said Brown. He estimated that a larger mesh net could be created for less than a dollar per square foot.

Certain combinations of layers yield nanoparticles that bind to oil instead of repelling it. Such particles could be used to detect oil underground or aid removal in the case of oil spills.

This work began more than 10 years ago, when Bhushan began building and patenting nano-structured coatings that mimic the texture of the lotus leaf. From there, he and his team have worked to amplify the effect and tailor it for different situations.

“We’ve studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems,” Bhushan said. “Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems.”

“Nature reaches a limit of what it can do,” agreed Brown. “To repel synthetic materials like oils, we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn’t have access to.”