Inspired by Spiders and Ants, Researchers Create Unsinkable Metal

The small metallic structure is entirely water repellent. No matter how damaged or punctured it becomes, it simply won't sink.
Fabienne Lang

Imagine an unsinkable ship or a floatation device that can still float on the surface of the water even if it's punctured. How about electronic monitoring devices that can stay afloat for long periods of time in the ocean? 

These ideas may all become a reality now, thanks to researchers from the University of Rochester. The team has created an unsinkable metallic structure, all thanks to diving bell spiders and rafts of fire ants. 


How did the team create an unsinkable metal?

Led by the University of Rochester professor of optics and physics, Chunlei Guo, a team of researchers created a groundbreaking technique to build the unsinkable metal. 

Inspired by Spiders and Ants, Researchers Create Unsinkable Metal
Superhydrophobic metallic structure floats on the water surface in the Guo lab. Source: J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester

The team used femtosecond bursts of laser to create the surface of the metal with specific patterns that trap air, which makes them water repellent. However, this method worked only for a while, as after being submerged in water, the structures would lose their floating powers.

This is where the ants and the spiders come into the equation. 

Both insects have the power to stay afloat for long periods of time. So the researchers set off on their quest to find ways to trap air in an enclosed area, much like diving bell spiders and fire ants. 

Inspired by Spiders and Ants, Researchers Create Unsinkable Metal
Even after being punctured, the structures would not sink. Source: J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester

"That was a very interesting inspiration," said Guo. As the researchers noted in their paper: "The key insight is that multifaceted superhydrophobic (SH) surfaces can trap a large air volume, which points towards the possibility of using SH surfaces to create buoyant devices."

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The team built a structure that uses two parallel aluminum plates that face inward. This way, the plates are enclosed and don't wear and tear from external factors. These plates are also distanced just the right amount to trap enough air between them to keep them afloat. 

Impressively, even after being entirely submerged and held down for two months, when freed, the structures bobbed right back up to the surface of the water. 

Guo said that the "etching process could be used for literally any metals, or other materials," and not only aluminum. 

This creation could light the way for future water-based projects.

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