Super-hydrophobic Surfaces are Unbelievable

by Anupum Pant

It is almost impossible to get a lotus leaf wet. If you try pouring water on it, you’ll see that it will form little beads of water and quickly roll out of the leaf. This happens because a lotus leaf is super-hydrophobic. Although, even your raincoat doesn’t get wet, it isn’t super-hydrophobic. Water sticks to on the surface of a raincoat. Super-hydrophobic surfaces don’t let water stick on it. But how do they manage to do that?

The science – Contact angle

Every time a liquid sits on the surface of a solid, the liquid drop forms an angle of contact as shown below. Things that don’t get wet have a contact angle greater than 90 degrees and the ones that get wet form an angle lesser than 90 degrees. The greatest angle is always less than 180 degrees. Theoretically, a perfect bead will form at that angle.

Super-hydrophobic surfaces are able to push this angle to as high as 175 degrees to form almost a perfectly spherical water droplet on the surface (due to very high surface energy). This ensures that as soon as water falls on it, it rolls away. The surface never gets wet.


Imagine things never getting wet. How about a completely water resistant phone, a shoe that never gets dirty, shirts that repel ice-cream and wind-screens rolling away rain droplets like magic? All these things are possible, if they can be converted into super-hydrophobic surfaces. [They can be. Watch the video below]

Besides repelling water, these surfaces can also prevent formation of ice, resist corrosion and prevent bacteria from sticking to it. The possibilities are endless.

How to do it artificially?

Today, we have managed to develop several artificial methods to make almost any surface super-hydrophobic. Commercial services like NeverWet, HydroBead and Lotus leaf coatings are making a roar in the market by offering amazing promises. Normally, they use simplified spray coatings to convert normal surfaces to super-hydrophobic surfaces, so any one can use them, anywhere.

Plasma Speakers

by Anupum Pant

Not many would have heard of speakers other than those which use magnetic materials to produce sound. But if you still haven’t heard about Plasma speakers or ionic plasma tweeters, you are really missing something great. Read on for more.

About Plasma Speakers

I talked about sound a few days back and mentioned that it is something that propagates through a medium due to pressure changes. Normally, magnetic speakers create these pressure waves by moving a diaphragm with the help of a varying magnetic field. But, plasma speakers do this by varying the air pressure through a high energy electric arc. This arc is produced by ionizing the gas present in between two terminals (ionizing reduces the electrical resistance of air which creates a visible arc).

These speakers use an extremely high energy arc which also increases the temperature of surrounding volume of gas to very high levels. So, before learning anything about them, the first thing you have to know is that these seemingly harmless things can kill you.

The Dangers

Plasma speakers are not toys. Old men, people with heart problems, kids etc should stay away from them. Even if an adult is handling them, they need to be informed about what they are doing first. It is better to have someone close who knows well, how these things work. Although the commercially available speakers are fairly safe, DIY kits can prove to be fatal. The kind of dangers involved with these devices:

1. The electric discharge – Think of it as a lightning. The dangerous high voltage device has the potential to kill you, if any of your body part comes close. Keep all bodily parts away.

2. Gas danger – The constant supply of ozone used for this project can actually be much more dangerous than the electric arc. Ozone used in this project, silently increases in concentration which can be fatal. It is important to keep the room well ventilated.

A few more things about them

Invented by WIlliam Duddells in the year 1900 these are not speakers, but tweeters. That means, that there will be no window cracking bass that is going to come out of them. Unlike magnetic diaphragms, the arcs have no weight and are able to produce a very crystal clear sound by moving back and forth very quickly. See the video below.

They work by changing temperature inside the gas chamber which makes them go red to purple as the frequencies of a song change. However, an un-modulated arc will just produce noise, something like you hear at first in the video. Also, they need a constant supply of Helium and Ozone coming into the chamber. These gases get ionized inside to produce the arc.

[Read this for more history]

Where can I get them?

In 1970 Magnat used to produce them, but they no longer produce plasma speakers now. The point is, they were the pioneers in bringing this to the masses.
Acapella sells them for an eye-popping price of 23000$. These costly ones are revered for their sound quality.
Other DIY kit can be bought for as low as 100$ [here]
Build one on your own for cheaper. (if you are willing to risk your life) [tutorial here]


Bricks Which Are Lighter Than Air

by Anupum Pant

What would smoke look and feel like, if you could solidify it?


Although, first made in 1931, Aerogels are relatively newer materials and a tremendous amount of research is being done on them everyday. Lightest solids ever, Aerogels weighing about seven times lesser than air have been made. Their extreme properties have given a fascinating field of interest to students and scientists. [Read the last paragraph]

How are they made?
Aerogels, also known as solid smoke or frozen smoke are extremely light materials. They are made by a process called sol-gel process which involves removing all the moisture from a specially made gel (Hypercritical Drying). Although the procedure may sound simple, there is a lot of technology involved in making them. Moreover, practically usable Aerogels which can endure moist conditions and high stress conditions are much more challenging to make. Also, it is very expensive to make them. [They can be made at home – with costly equipment of course]

Why is it so light? 
The whole lot of porosity left inside due to drying of the gel is what makes it so light. You can think of them as a sponge which is hard like pumice. But, when you think of a sponge, remember that mostly Aerogels aren’t very resilient. That means, unlike sponge they won’t get back into the previous shape after they’ve been pressed a lot. They are much sturdier/tighter than sponges. A small (not very small; due to very low density they occupy large space) piece of Aerogel weighing just 2 grams has been shown to hold a 2.5 kg brick without deforming. Poorly made Aerogels, on the other hand can also not be very sturdy. They would deform with a hard press of a finger and stay deformed.

How light are they?
Agreed, they can be lighter than air, but the practical mass varies greatly. And they don’t float in air because, with air present inside them, they are slightly heavier than air (weight of air inside + solid material), but can be made to float in air by replacing the air inside it with Hydrogen or Helium. Their lightness and density is completely dependent on the amount of porosity included during the fabrication – which can be controlled. Also, the kind of gel used to make it, affects the weight of the final block. So a block with 3 feet in length, breath and height can weigh anything from 1 kg to just 160 gm.

Aerographite, a carbon Aerogel made by German material scientists from Kiel University and the Hamburg University of Technology, was said to have weighed only 0.2 mg per cubic centimeter. It was 5000 times less dense than water and 6 times lighter than air (counting only the solid material’s weight of course). [Published Paper]

Graphene Aerogel: As if that wasn’t enough, recently, Chinese material scientists developed a lighter material than Aerographite. It was based on Graphene. A Graphene Aerogel; seven times lighter than air. This one, unlike other silica Aerogels, can recover like a sponge after getting deformed. [Published Paper]

Other Properties

Aerogels exhibit various other desirable properties which make them useful for a myriad of applications [See the Wikipedia Article]. For instance, they are very good insulators of heat. A nicely made Aerogel block which is just under a centimeter thick can protect things from a direct flame. Other desirable properties are high surface area, high thermal and acoustic resistivity, low dielectric constant, and low refractive index.

Aerogels absorb water or moisture from the air and even from human skin easily. Handling them with bare hands can cause blisters. But, the ones which repel water have been made successfully by altering fabrication parameters. Also, if particles of it are inhaled, it can cause problems. Hence, hand gloves and respiratory masks are used to handle them.

I want to study interesting materials like these

If you think Aerogels and Wolverine’s claws are interesting things. You can make a career in researching materials like these by making a foray into Materials Science and Engineering. Most good universities offer a course in it. It is a budding field, growing at a rapid pace with loads of opportunities waiting for you.