Environmental analysis of biologically inspired self-cleaning surfaces
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Biologically inspired design is used as an approach for sustainable engineering. Taking a biologically inspired approach, one abstracts ideas and principles from nature, an inherently sustainable system, and uses them in engineering applications with the goal of producing environmentally superior designs. One such biological idea with potential environmental benefits for engineering is microscale and nanoscale surface roughness found on the Lotus plant and many other surfaces in nature. These surfaces repel water and aid in contaminant removal; this self-cleaning phenomenon is called the "Lotus Effect," in honor of the plant first observed to exhibit it. The structures responsible for the Lotus Effect inspired research and development of many technologies capable of creating hydrophobic, self-cleaning surfaces, and many potential self-cleaning surface applications exist beyond nature's intended application of cleaning. While statements have been made about the environmental benefits of using a self-cleaning surface, only limited scientific data exist. Artificial self-cleaning surfaces are successfully cleaned using fog or mist. This shows that such surfaces can be cleaned with less energy and water intensive methods than the more conventional methods used to clean regular surfaces, such as spray or solvent cleaning. This research investigates the potential environmental burden reductions associated with using these surfaces on products. A life cycle assessment is performed to determine the environmental burdens associated with manufacturing a self-cleaning surface, for three production methods: a chemical coating, a laser ablated steel template, and an anodized aluminum template. The environmental benefits and burdens are quantified and compared to those of more conventional cleaning methods. The results indicate that self-cleaning surfaces are not necessarily the environmentally superior choice.