First synthetic tree may facilitate heat transfer, soil technologies

September 11th, 2008 - 4:24 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 11 (IANS) The world’s first ’synthetic tree,’ created by Abraham Stroock’s lab, mimics the process of transpiration that helps move moisture to the highest branches.The researchers’ work bolsters the long-standing theory that transpiration in trees and plants through capilliary action, is a purely physical process, requiring no biological energy.

It also may lead to new passive heat transfer technologies for cars or buildings, better methods for remediating soil and more effective ways to draw water out of partially dry ground.

The ’synthetic tree’ doesn’t look much like a tree at all. It consists of two circles side by side in the gel, patterned with evenly spaced microfluidic channels to mimic a tree’s vascular system.

In nature, trees use water in tubular tissues, called xylem, like ropes that pull more water out of the ground, delivering it to leaves. Xylem-like capillaries are relatively easy to create by microfabrication, but the researchers’ choice of a material to act as membranes in the leaf and root to separate the liquid from the atmosphere and the soil was much trickier.

Abraham Stroock, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and Wheeler, a graduate student in his lab, used pHEMA hydrogel, to form the plant membranes.

The capillary action used in trees might be applicable to developing new passive heat-transfer methods, Stroock said. The heat-transfer technology commonly used for cooling laptops, which uses vaporisation to carry the heat to the fan on the edge of the computer, could be scaled up using the technology developed for the synthetic tree.

These findings were reported on Thursday issue of Nature.

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