Cicadas could soon be everywhere — Scientists are using their wings to create self-cleaning technology

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Insect wings may soon inspire the creation of new self-cleaning technologies for items like solar panels and car windshields, according to new research.

Cicadas, geckos, and lotus plants have evolved to possess water-repellant, waxy surfaces that encourage morning dew to form perfect, round droplets. These droplets roll off the surfaces of insect wings and plant leaves, effectively removing contaminants. Similar techniques could be employed to enhance the design and performance of coatings for solar panels, car windshields, and biosensors.

A research team from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering conducted their study by focusing on cicada wings. Utilizing computer simulations powered by the supercomputer ARCHER2, the researchers found that pollutants could be eliminated in two ways, contingent on the forces of attraction between the water droplets, the pollutant, and the molecules on the insect wing’s surface.

“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,” says Dr. Sreehari Perumanath, who spearheaded this research while working at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering and is currently a Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Warwick, in a university release.

pic of cicada with orange wings sitting on a green branch, include rendering of giant blue water droplet just above the cicada
Water droplet lifts contaminant from cicada’s wings. (Credit: Dr Sreehari Perumanath)

The study demonstrates that when the force of the water droplet surpasses the force anchoring the contaminant to the surface, the pollutant is absorbed by the droplet. The droplet then either rolls or jumps off the cicada’s wings. Alternatively, lifting forces generated by many droplets merging together can launch contaminants off the wings in a captivating droplet shape, reminiscent of a hot air balloon.

“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,” says Dr. Matthew Borg, a study co-author, and researcher at the Institute for Multiscale Thermofluids at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering.

The findings, published in the journal Nano Letters, was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

South West News Service writer Sarah Ward contributed to this report.


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