Nav: Home

Nanofur for oil spill cleanup

August 23, 2016

Some water ferns can absorb large volumes of oil within a short time, because their leaves are strongly water-repellent and, at the same time, highly oil-absorbing. Researchers of KIT, together with colleagues of Bonn University, have found that the oil-binding capacity of the water plant results from the hairy microstructure of its leaves. It is now used as a model to further develop the new Nanofur material for the environmentally friendly cleanup of oil spills. (DOI: 10.1088/1748-3190/11/5/056003)

Damaged pipelines, oil tanker disasters, and accidents on oil drilling and production platforms may result in pollutions of water with crude or mineral oil. Conventional methods to clean up the oil spill are associated with specific drawbacks. Oil combustion or the use of chemical substances to accelerate oil decomposition cause secondary environmental pollution. Many natural materials to take up the oil, such as sawdust or plant fibers, are hardly effective, because they also absorb large amounts of water. On their search for an environmentally friendly alternative to clean up oil spills, the researchers compared various species of aquatic ferns. "We already knew that the leaves of these plants repel water, but for the first time now, we have studied their capacity to absorb oil," Claudia Zeiger says. She conducted the project at KIT's Institute of Microstructure Technology.

Aquatic ferns originally growing in tropical and subtropical regions can now also be found in parts of Europe. As they reproduce strongly, they are often considered weed. However, they have a considerable potential as low-cost, rapid, and environmentally friendly oil absorbers, which is obvious from a short video at "The plants might be used in lakes to absorb accidental oil spills," Zeiger says. After less than 30 seconds, the leaves reach maximum absorption and can be skimmed off together with the absorbed oil. The water plant named salvinia has trichomes on the leaf surface -- hairy extensions of 0.3 to 2.5 mm in length. Comparison of different salvinia species revealed that leaves with the longest hairs did not absorb the largest amounts of oil. "Oil-absorbing capacity is determined by the shape of the hair ends," Zeiger emphasizes. The largest quantity of oil was absorbed by leaves of the water fern salvinia molesta, whose hair ends are shaped like an eggbeater.

Based on this new knowledge on the relationship between surface structure of leaves and their oil-absorbing capacity, the researchers improved the 'Nanofur' material developed at their institute. This plastic nanofur mimics the water-repellent and oil-absorbing effect of salvinia to separate oil and water. "We study nanostructures and microstructures in nature for potential technical developments," says Hendrik Hölscher, Head of the Biomimetic Surfaces Group of the Institute of Microstructure Technology of KIT. He points out that different properties of plants made of the same material frequently result from differences of their finest structures.
Claudia Zeiger as the first author presents the study results in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics under the heading of "Microstructures of superhydrophobic plant leaves -- inspiration for efficient oil spill cleanup materials." This study was carried out in cooperation with scientists of the Nees Institute for Biodiversity of Plants of Bonn University, which was established by bionics pioneer Wilhelm Barthlott. Research was supported by a Ph.D. grant of Carl Zeiss Foundation, the Brazilian research and exchange program Ciências sem Fronteiras, and the Karlsruhe Nano Micro Facility (KNMF) high-tech platform of KIT.

Claudia Zeiger, Isabelle C Rodrigues da Silva, Matthias Mail, Maryna N Kavalenka, Wilhelm Barthlott, and Hendrik Hölscher: Microstructures of superhydrophobic plant leaves - inspiration for efficient oil spill cleanup materials. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. DOI: 10.1088/1748-3190/11/5/056003

Click here for the online publication:

More information on Nanofur: (in German only)

For further information, please contact: Kosta Schinarakis, PKM - Science Scout, Phone: 49-721-608-41956, Fax: 49-721-608-43658, E-mail:

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) pools its three core tasks of research, higher education, and innovation in a mission. With about 9,300 employees and 25,000 students, KIT is one of the big institutions of research and higher education in natural sciences and engineering in Europe.

KIT - The Research University in the Helmholtz Association

Since 2010, the KIT has been certified as a family-friendly university.

This press release is available on the internet at

Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT)

Related Oil Spill Articles:

BP oil spill did $17.2 billion in damage to natural resources, scientists find
The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill did $17.2 billion in damage to the natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico, a team of scientists recently found after a six-year study of the impact of the largest oil spill in US history.
Economists price BP oil spill damage to natural resources at $17.2 billion
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest maritime oil spill in US history.
Seven years later: BP oil spill settlement funding new way to manage fish populations
Researchers from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science played a key role in understanding the severity of the BP oil spill.
Coming soon: Oil spill-mapping swarms of flying drones
Partly inspired by the dynamics of a flock of birds, engineers devised a computational method for drones to quickly record whether they are over water, oil or the edge of the spill.
Scientists report on latest Deepwater Horizon oil spill impacts
LSU scientists will present new research at the 2017 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference in New Orleans next week.
Researchers ask important questions on what happens to oil after a spill
Very little is known about what happens to oil in the ocean after an oil spill and what happens to it once a chemical dispersant has been applied.
Gulf oil spill research featured in special issue
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was not only the largest ecological disaster in the US, but it has become the most scientifically researched oil spill.
Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused widespread marsh erosion
Marsh erosion caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was widespread, a new study of 103 Gulf Coast sites reveals.
Nanofur for oil spill cleanup
Some water ferns can absorb large volumes of oil within a short time, because their leaves are strongly water-repellent and, at the same time, highly oil-absorbing.
'Dirty Blizzard' sent 2010 Gulf oil spill pollution to seafloor
Scientists working in the Gulf of Mexico have found that contaminants from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill lingered in the subsurface water for months after oil on the surface had been swept up or dispersed.

Related Oil Spill Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Failure can feel lonely and final. But can we learn from failure, even reframe it, to feel more like a temporary setback? This hour, TED speakers on changing a crushing defeat into a stepping stone. Guests include entrepreneur Leticia Gasca, psychology professor Alison Ledgerwood, astronomer Phil Plait, former professional athlete Charly Haversat, and UPS training manager Jon Bowers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".