The Loh Down On Science

Artificial Trees

Engineers develop the world's first synthetic tree - in the form of a palm-sized piece of the same material used in contact lenses.

Call Al Gore! We've got. . . artificial trees?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

So biomolecular engineer Abraham Stroock at Cornell University was studying "passive transfer." That's the way trees wick moisture, from their roots up to their branches.

How? Trees contain flexible, tubular cells called "xylem." A xylem cell subjects water to slight pressure, which creates enough tension to move that water up to the next xylem cell, and so on.

No one has ever created an exact synthetic version of this process. Until now.

Stroock took a hand-sized sheet of hydrogel-- the material used in contact lenses--and etched it with a series of channels. Then he added a liquid. Tiny pores in the hydrogel pulled in the liquid and suspended it--under tension -- in the channels. Precisely like a tree!

Uses for Stroock's hydrogel tree? How about new cooling devices to replace the fans in laptops, which have lots of moving parts. Or energy-efficient technologies to heat tall buildings, by wicking heat from floor to floor!

Pine-tree shaped air-freshener to cost extra.


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