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WATCH: Metal inspired by fire ants could one day lead to ‘unsinkable ships’

PortandTerminal.com, November 7, 2019

Drawing on diving bell spiders and rafts of fire ants, researchers have developed a metal structure that refuses to sink – which could lead to unsinkable ships, indestructible flotation devices, and more.

ROCHESTER, NY University of Rochester researchers, inspired by diving bell spiders and rafts of fire ants, have created a metallic structure that is so water repellent, it refuses to sink—no matter how often it is forced into water or how much it is damaged or punctured.

Diving Bell spiders spend their entire lives underwater, only venturing to the surface to replenish their diving bell air supply.

Could this lead to an unsinkable ship? A wearable flotation device that will still float after being punctured? Electronic monitoring devices that can survive in the long term in the ocean?

Professor Chunlei Guo, The Institute of Optics at University of Rochester

All of the above, says Chunlei Guo, professor of optics and physics, whose lab describes the structure in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The structure uses a groundbreaking technique the lab developed for using extremely short laser bursts to “etch” the surfaces of metals with intricate micro- and nanoscale patterns that trap air and make the surfaces superhydrophobic, or water repellent.

Even if the metal is forced to sink, it will return to the surface and continue to float as soon as the pressure is removed, according to researchers from the University of Rochester.

The team took inspiration from fire ants that lock their limbs together on water to trap pockets of air between their extremely water-resistant limbs which keep them afloat as a group.

‘This could lead to an unsinkable ship, a wearable flotation device that will still float after being punctured and even electronic monitoring devices that can survive in long term in the ocean,’ said Professor Chunlei Guo, who led the study

Even after being forced to submerge for two months, the structures used in Professor Guo’s tests immediately bounced back to the surface after the load was released. The structures also retained this ability even after being punctured multiple times, because air remains trapped in remaining parts of the compartment or adjoining structures.

A metallic structure etched by lasers, right, floats to the top fn the water’s surface in professor Chunlei Guo’s lab. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Though the team used aluminum for this project, the “etching process “could be used for literally any metals, or other materials,” Guo says.

The project was supported by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Army Research Office, and National Science Foundation.

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