Crazy Uses for Completely 'Frictionless' Surfaces

Nature, in this case pitcher plants, proves to be the inspiration of science once again. Scientists have been studying the carnivorous plants, hoping to replicate their slippery surfaces.


"Assume a completely frictionless surface." How many times did we see that statement in our high-school physics class? And how many times did we wonder why our teachers were so eager to have us live in a fantasy world? Now, thanks to a group of scientists known as tribologists, the prospect of eliminating friction between two interacting surfaces is fast becoming a reality.

It's being done in interesting ways, too. For example, a team of researchers at Harvard University studied the carnivorous pitcher plant's leaves, which feature microscopic ridges that trap a layer of liquid nectar between them. The surface is so slippery that insects landing on the leaves slide off and fall into deep, pitcher-shaped pouches, where enzymes gobble them up. Back in the lab, the researchers duplicated the slippery slope of the pitcher plant by creating a random network of water-repellent nanoposts and Teflon-coated nanofibers and then soaking them in a fluorine-rich liquid. The liquid formed a layer between the nanostructures, preventing water and other materials from flowing between them and creating a nearly nonstick surface.

What can frictionless surfaces do for you? Well, we've all flipped a few eggs on nonstick skillets, but that's just the tip of a super-slick iceberg.