How surface science can solve big challenges
(13 December 2018)
Did you know that more than a billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water? And that the majority of mobile phones carried by doctors and nurses in hospitals carry infections?
Our researchers are trying to help solve these global challenges and many others, with the help of surface science to fabricate ultrathin functional coatings and minuscule layers. We asked Professor Jas Pal Badyal FRS about the work.
How useful can surface science be in our day-to-day lives?
We are completely surrounded by smart surfaces – on clothing, mobile phones, in aerospace, contact lenses, footwear and even hearing aids.
As an example, our waterproof technology has been used to treat and protect over 300 million smartphones from getting wet. This is an extremely useful technology that solves a common problem for millions of people around the world.
We are now using surface science to tackle major problems in society, and particularly those issues that affect developing countries such as access to clean drinking water and the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
How is your research helping to provide clean drinking water?
In dry climates with very little rainfall or in countries where ground water is contaminated through mining, we need to find other ways to get clean drinking water.
We can do this by collecting fog which develops in all kinds of climates. In my team, we are developing smart surfaces that can efficiently collect, channel and purify water from fog so that more people can have access to clean drinking water.
Spread of infections in hospitals is a common problem world-wide. How is your research trying to tackle this?
Hospital surfaces, equipment and people carry a huge amount of infections.
Conventional antibacterial wipes mainly work by releasing antibacterial agents designed to kill off bacteria. However, these can end up being washed into the environment which can make them less effective over time as the bacteria build up antimicrobial resistance towards them.
We are developing antibacterial wipes which don’t release antibacterial ingredients into the environment meaning they can be re-used multiple times and still work just as well.
Can you tell us about the bio-inspired approach you use to develop new surfaces?
We have been trying to learn from nature by looking at plants and insects that manage to survive in dry climates, known as a bio-inspired approach.
As an example, we identified a tree species in a cloud forest in Canada which allows sunlight, but not rain, to come through its leaves and allows heat to escape. As a result, a lot of wildlife, like bears and deer, sit under these trees during rainfall.
We have replicated the structure in the leaf of this tree which could potentially be used in roof tiles for buildings as well as for huts in developing countries. This could also be a simple and environmentally-friendly alternative to air-condition homes and buildings.
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