The sticky pads of gecko’s foot are helpful for climbing walls—but they could also help clean up dust, too. Researchers from Yale University have found that their microscopic structure could be used to gather ultra-fine dust that’s otherwise devilishly hard to capture.

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Look at the surface of a gecko’s foot under a microscope and you won’t see a smooth surface, but thousands of tiny pillars. Those pillars help generate electrostatic charges that provide at least part of the creature’s ability to clamber up vertical surfaces with relative ease.

But electrostatic charges could also be used to attract dust particles, the researchers figured—so they decided to build a new material that mimics the microstructure of the gecko foot. The result is a sheet of a polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), with pillars over its surface that range in size from 2 to 50 microns in diameter.

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Unlike a gecko foot, the electrostatic charge created by the pillars is too weak for a sheet of the material to stick to a surface—but it is strong enough to attract dust particles. And it works: In the image below, you can see silica dust particles being attracted to a 50-micron diameter column. The research is published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Image: Vanderlick Lab

The team has tested it on a series of different surfaces, where it appears to work effectively and cause no damage to the objects it’s being used to clean. While the project was set up to create a tool that could be used to clean artworks, the researchers reckon it could in theory be used to clean any surface.

Now we just need to wait for their clever cleaning cloths to become a commercial reality.

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[ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces via Futurity]