Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University

Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University

Researchers at Ohio State University have developed a mesh that may help manage disasters from oil spills to smartphone screen grease. The thin, perforated sheet of stainless steel is coated with a nearly invisible, oil-repellent that lets the mesh capture oil particles but allows water to pass through.

Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Wingbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State, and postdoctoral researcher Philip Brown looked to nature for inspiration and found it in the lotus leaf.

The lotus flower is a Buddhist symbol of fortune, blossoming beauty from muddy waters. Lotus leaves are less pretty but have bumpy surfaces that naturally repel water but not oil. Bhushan and Brown reversed the leaves’ selectivity by coating a silica surface with a nontoxic, surfactant-embedded polymer. The combination effectively repels oil but not water. RT reports, the silica and surfacant nanoparticle layer is only a few hundred nanometers thick and nearly undetectable.

According to the Ohio State University website, when researchers poured a mixture of water and oil onto a sheet of the selective mesh, water filtered freely through into a beaker below, while the oil collected on top of the sheet.

“If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net,” Bhushan said in the press release.

Brown estimates that a larger mesh could be created for less than one dollar per square foot, making larger “nets” feasible, cost effective and environmentally friendly. These nets could then be used to clean massive oil spills.

Bhushan hopes to someday apply the oil-repelling nanoparticle layer to windows and touchscreen surfaces: "Our goal is to reach a transparency in the 90-percent range. In all our coatings, different combinations of ingredients in the layers yield different properties. The trick is to select the right layers."