From the natural world to new materials

The idea that high technology has been developed solely by people is absurd, says Jiang Lei, professor of the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

There are countless examples of high tech phenomena throughout the natural world.

Jiang traces his achievements back to a pond skater he once saw on a puddle.

He observed that the tip of each leg is covered with microscopic hairs, each tipped with a spiral of tiny bands some 200 nanometers wide. The air trapped within the spiral creates an ultrabuoyant platform which allows each leg to support 15 times the insect’s body weight and the creature to move at the equivalent of 400kph for a human.

His findings have frequently appeared on the cover of British scientific journal Nature.

The true value of Jiang’s studies are in the numerous applications they have led to.

Using carbon nanotubes, for example, he artificially recreated extremely water repellent structures such as the pond skater’s legs, which can be used as coating materials to protect delicate objects.

Another significant achievement was the recreation of the surface structure of fish scales that repel oil and dirt, with the results now used to protect ship hulls.

Jiang joined the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences when he was in his 30s as part of a government program to bring distinguished academics back to China from abroad. He now leads a team of 60 researchers.

At an academic conference in Germany, his mind was set racing when someone commented on the beauty of lotus flowers in a pond. He observed that raindrops rolled off the surface of the leaves, carrying dirt with them. Jiang discovered this was due to thousands of microscopic bumps that give the leaf an extreme hydrophobicity.

Skeptics questioned the value of his research, but Jiang was undeterred. “I couldn’t stop before I found answers,” he recalled.

In 2001, Jiang’s work on the structure of lotus leaves was published, paving the way for a number of applications in waterproof and dirt-resistant materials.

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