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Impact case study

Public Understanding: Nature's Raincoats

Unit(s) of assessment: General Engineering

School: School of Science and Technology


The NTU research team, along with Professor Yeomans' theoretical physics group at the University of Oxford, created a public understanding exhibit, Nature's Raincoats, for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition of 2009. The exhibition had 5,522 visitors and attracted worldwide media coverage.

The exhibition was then invited to appear at:

  • Techfest (Mumbai, India, in 2010 and 2012) the largest science and technology exhibition in India, with an estimated 85,000 visitors
  • The Discover Zone at the 2010 Times Cheltenham Science Festival, which sold about 23,000 tickets
  • The Big Bang Fair in London 2013, with 65,000 visitors
  • BBC Summer of UK wildlife event (Cardiff, June 2013)
  • The British Science Festival (Newcastle, September 2013).

Public understanding impact through the website and media

Public understanding of Nature's Raincoats was increased by the production of three linked videos for the Test Tube project, a Nottingham Science City initiative.

From July 2009 to May 2013, the Nature's Raincoats website had 21,020 unique visitors from over 40 countries.

Media interest has also resulted in the NTU researchers providing a specially-prepared lab coat for Richard Hammond in the series Invisible Worlds (BBC / Discovery Channel, 2009) and advice and guidance on the development of a stunt for the BBC series Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature (Oxford Scientific Films, 2012).

Commercial and educational impact

Coverage in trade reports, for example Materials KTN and Eureka, has raised awareness of the commercial possibilities of the research and permissions were granted for research images to be reproduced in an educational textbook.

In the US, teacher and outreach coordinator Troy Dassler developed an educational website for children as a result of his discussions with the research team and use of the Natures Raincoats website. Dassler reported the work in an educational article 'Recognizing excellence: From macro to micro to nano'.

Research background

The research demonstrates how the use of micro- and nano-topography can amplify surface wetting properties beyond that achievable simply though surface chemistry. Properties achieved include super water repellency (superhydrophobicity), often referred to as the "lotus effect", and super wetting.

NTU researchers have been working on superhydrophobicity since 1999, making them one of the earliest UK groups to specialise in this field. The research is underpinned by nine EPSRC awards since 2001, including an EPSRC Platform grant, demonstrating that the research is of world-leading quality.

The work is wide-ranging in its breadth of relevance across science and engineering and has been studied in more than 30 journal articles in the field.

Initial materials methods research showed how superhydrophobicity could be intrinsically built into foams with surface properties renewed by abrasion. Further original research showed how lithographic, electro-deposition, etching and other techniques could produce these properties.

The research team's review article referring to the group's original research, is the most cited article ever published in the leading journal Soft Matter, with 490 citations on 25 September 2013. Along with other original research papers, it established the group as a world-leading source of expertise on materials methods in this area.

Research developed from materials methods into applications of superhydrophobicity. For example, the group demonstrated sensor responses using switching concepts, cited in Nature News (2005) and subsequent articles.

The team, in collaboration with geographers at Swansea University, then established that superhydrophobic concepts in natural systems could explain extreme water repellence arising from forest fires and use of grey water for irrigation. Their findings are outlined in an article in Environmental Science & Technology and related articles in the European Journal of Soil Science, Applied Physics Letters and Hydrological Processes.

This paper is an exemplar of published research on using immersed superhydrophobic surfaces for underwater respiration, what insect physiologists call a plastron, without the need for a gill.

The group also demonstrated how lichens use a similar natural Gore-Tex type membrane to buffer water and for plants to collect water using passive methods.

The ability of such nano¬- and micro-structured surfaces to reduce solid-liquid contact area and to create a surface retained layer of air also was of interest in methods of drag reduction both in lab-on-a-chip systems and surfaces used in sailing. This led to collaborations with computational fluid dynamics and marine engineers in Southampton and UK Sport as an invited project of the UK Sport-EPSRC Olympics initiative in Team GB preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

The significance of the group's original research output and recognition of its world-leading expertise is evidenced by a range of invited highlight, emerging area, comment and review articles for journals including, Analyst (2004), Nature Materials (2007), Soft Matter (2008), Langmuir (2009), Soft Matter (2010), Advances In Colloid and Interface Science (2010), Soft Matter (2011) and the Journal of Polymer Science B: Polymer Phys. (2011).

Nature's Raincoats video.