Cicada-inspired waterproof surfaces closer to reality, researchers report


Researchers have demonstrated a new fabrication technique that allows them replicate the nanostructures found on cicada wings that make them water- and microbe-repellent.

Researchers have demonstrated a new fabrication technique that allows them replicate the nanostructures found on cicada wings that make them water- and microbe-repellent.

Photo by Wayne Boo, U.S. Geological Survey

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A multidisciplinary group that studies the physical and chemical properties of insect wings has demonstrated the ability to reproduce the nanostructures that help cicada wings repel water and prevent bacteria from establishing on the surface. The new technique – which uses commercial nail polish – is economical and straightforward, and the researchers said it will help fabricate future high-tech waterproof materials.


Nenad Miljkovic, left, Marianne Alleyne, center, and Don Cropek.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The team used a simplified version of a fabrication process – called nanoimprinting lithography – to make a template of the complex pillar-shaped nanostructures on the wings of Neotibicen pruinosus, an annual cicada found in the central region of the United States. The templates are fully dissolvable and produce replicas that average 94.4% of the pillar height and 106% of the original wing, or master structure’s pillar diameter, the researchers said.

The results of the study are published in the journal Nano Letters.

“We chose to work with wings of this species of cicada because our past work demonstrates how the complex nanostructures on their wings provide an outstanding ability to repel water. That is a highly desirable property that will be useful in many materials engineering applications, from aircraft wings to medical equipment,” said Marianne Alleyne, an entomology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-led the study with Donald Cropek, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, and Nenad Miljkovic, a professor of mechanical science and engineering at Illinois.

Nanoimprinting lithography is not new but can be labor-intensive and expensive, the researchers said. Some approaches use toxic materials that can damage the original copied object, like a delicate cicada wing. Others require high temperatures that are not compatible with biological samples such as plants or insects.

“Our process allows us to do this in an open lab at room temperature and atmospheric pressure,” Cropek said. “We use nail polish and rubbing alcohol, which does not inflict any damage to the delicate wing nanostructures.”


A schematic showing the nanoimprinting lithographic fabrication process of the nanopillars found on the wings of cicadas.

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