Biomimetics, A Cactus, and Oil Spills

Have you ever been riding down Mexico way, maybe in the Chihuahua Desert, when a snake spooks your horse, it rears up, and you get thrown into a patch of bunny ears cactus? Me, neither. That cactus doesn't have the typical long pointy spines that you see in picture books, movies, and television. No, these bad boys are very fine, and come out in bunches at even a light touch. I reckon they hurt real bad, and people need first aid right quick. And yet, this cactus (Opuntia microdasys) has inspired biomimetics to help with oil spills.

The special design of the unique "spines" of a cactus may prove beneficial in a biomimetics application to help with oil spills. But where did the spines come from?
Opuntia microdasys / Wikimedia Commons / Stan Shebs

Scientists studied the special spines on this cactus and how they relate with water. This in turn may help recover spilled oil below the surface of the water. But where did these special spines come from? They are obviously designed for their purpose, just like the spines on other cacti. The following article discusses the technology of the biomimetics idea, as well as how evolution does not explain their origin. From there, the author discusses some biblical ideas on the formation of the spines.
Oil spills at sea, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, can be massively damaging ecological events, with oil spreading for many thousands of miles. Biomimetics, the abstraction of good design from nature, is again providing a useful solution, this time to such disasters. Recently published cactus-inspired research is aimed at finding a more effective way of capturing submerged oil droplets, which are normally missed in the cleanup operations, which typically focus on collecting the oil near the surface of the water.

A unique system

The new technology builds upon previous research on the tapered spines of the cactus species, Opuntia microdasys (figure 1), which is endemic to central and Northern Mexico, and found in places such as the arid Chihuahua Desert. It was discovered that the cactus efficiently collects water droplets from fog using a “unique system composed of well-distributed clusters of conical spines and trichomes on the cactus stem”.
To see how Philip Robinson makes his points, click on "Cactus spines, sharper than you may think!"