By using new photonics technology (the technology of generating, controlling and detecting photons, or particles of light), a team of European scientists from Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the UK has developed the first fluid-repellent, antibacterial metal surface in the world.

Looking for a solution in nature, the researchers examined the surface of the lotus leaf plant – in particular its defence mechanism – which gave them the idea for self-cleaning metal.

A lotus leaf has a roughened, jagged surface that creates miniature air-pockets between the spikes on the leaf surface, a bit like the air pockets in a string vest that help to keep you warm. These air pockets reduce the contact area between the surface of the leaf and liquid – so the rain bounces off. With this in mind, the scientists used a powerful laser cutter to make tiny spikes and ridges in sheet metal (covering1000 square cm in 1 hour), thus mimicking the leaf and causing water to simply bounce off. The rough surface enables the water to remain as spherical droplets and so bacteria – which now only have 20% contact with the metal surface instead of 100% – don’t stick. This means that the metal is already anti-bacterial without the need for cleaning products or chemicals.

The project, named TresClean, is aiming the product at the food production industry – specifically at self-cleaning machine parts. TresClean hopes to make a significant impact on reducing costs and increasing productivity in factories where food products such as milk, yoghurt and tomato sauce are processed.

Professor Luca Romeli, the project co-ordinator said, “Vats in milk factories need to be cleaned every 6-8 hours to avoid the exponential growth of bacteria. This hinders usage and therefore affects output”

“By saving hours per day in cleaning, it will yield an efficiency improvement stemming from fewer sterilisation cycles and less cleaning time within production as a whole. This will also reduce energy consumption as a result of fewer cleaning phases making food production quicker, safer and more profitable.”

This technology obviously has implications for other industry sectors too. From metal machine parts, it’s not that great a leap to imagine a world of self-cleaning dishwashers, washing machines, cutting tools, saucepans and even toilets.

For all sorts of products, if the application of a metal surface means that it must be bacteria free, this new technology could just be the answer of the future.

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