Geckos may be giving art conservationists an unexpected hand – a new way of keeping art clean.
This doesn’t mean we’ll be letting hordes of geckos run rampant through the Louvre because that’s not how science works (though it could create a lovely Disney scene). Instead, researchers took inspiration from geckos, designing a material that can collect the smallest motes of dust from a painting without damaging it. Needless to say, this could be very useful.
“Acrylic paints are incredibly porous, so anything you’re putting on the surface could get into the pores, and then work from the insides of the pores to soften the paints,” Cindy Schwartz, an art conservator at Yale said.
Dust is a very big problem when it comes to paintings. If dust paintings are bigger than 10 micrometers, you can remove them without big problems, usually through some type of jet. But even so, there is a risk of damaging the painting, and if they’re smaller, it gets even more difficult. There are other removal methods, some more complex than others, but all have their drawbacks.
This new solution could be deceptively simple. Hadi Izadi, a postdoctoral associate and the paper’s lead author, created a material which looks much like an ordinary plastic sheet but is actually a non-sticky, elastic polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS).
If you would look at PDMS under a microscope, it looks like a sheet with millions of columns; there are different sizes of columns for different sizes of dust specs. Interestingly, gecko feet are designed specifically to not have things stick to them – and this is why this material is so good. It has almost no interaction with the substrate (the painting), but if their size is just right, it produces enough electrostatic energy to attract the dust specs. Therefore, it can clean the paintings without damaging the painting at all.
“Dust is something at the nanometer level,” Vanderlick says. “And there’s a lot of interesting thin film, surface, and interfacial physics associated with the preservation of art.”
Journal Reference: Removal of Particulate Contamination from Solid Surfaces Using Polymeric Micropillars.