Biology Faculty Research

Reduction of Water Surface Tension Significantly Impacts Gecko Adhesion Underwater

Alyssa Y. Stark, University of Akron Main Campus
Brandon McClung, University of Akron Main Campus
Peter H. Niewiarowski, University of Akron Main Campus
Ali Dhinojwala, University of Akron Main Campus

Abstract

The gecko adhesive system is dependent on weak van der Waals interactions that are multiplied across thousands of fine hair-like structures (setae) on geckos’ toe pads. Due to the requirements of van der Waals forces, we expect that any interruption between the setae and substrate, such as a water layer, will compromise adhesion. Our recent results suggest, however, that the air layer (plastron) surrounding the superhydrophobic toe pads aid in expelling water at the contact interface and create strong shear adhesion in water when in contact with hydrophobic surfaces. To test the function of the air plastron, we reduced the surface tension of water using two surfactants, a charged anionic surfactant and a neutral nonionic surfactant. We tested geckos on three substrates: hydrophilic glass and two hydrophobic surfaces, glass with a octadecyl trichlorosilane self-assembled monolayer (OTS-SAM) and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). We found that the anionic surfactant inhibited the formation of the air plastron layer and significantly reduced shear adhesion to all three substrates. Interestingly, the air plastron was more stable in the nonionic surfactant treatments than the anionic surfactant treatments and we found that geckos adhered better in the nonionic surfactant than in the anionic surfactant on OTS-SAM and PTFE but not on glass. Our results have implications for the evolution of a superhydrophobic toe pad and highlight some of the challenges faced in designing synthetic adhesives that mimic geckos’ toes.