Plastron respiration: Extracting oxygen from water

What can be simpler than a block of white foam? When the foam has a hydrophobic surface it becomes superhydrophobic and when it is immersed in water it retains a silvery looking layer of air around its surface. This provides a water-air interface across which oxygen can diffuse from the water into the internal cavity of the foam.

In nature this idea is used by some aquatic insects and spiders to breathe underwater without the need for a gill (plastron respiration). The image above left shows a superhydrophobic foam with mounted oxygen sensor used to create and investigate a model plastron. By using a zinc-oxide cell inside the foam block to burn up the oxygen, it is possible to show that oxygen is extracted from the water. On the right is a scanning electron microscope image of the pore structure of a methyltriethoxysilane foam; the inset shows a magnified view (x 3).

In the Press

Read more about this experiment in the publication listed below, and see what James Kay (above) and the Nottingham Evening Post (below) thought about the Nottingham experiments.

BBC Radio 4’s Material World ran a segment:


Plastron properties of a super-hydrophobic surface
N.J. Shirtcliffe, G. McHale, M.I. Newton, C.C. Perry and F.B. Pyatt, Appl. Phys. Lett. 89 (10) (2016) art. 104106

Immersed superhydrophobic surfaces: Gas exchange, slip and drag reduction properties
G. McHale, M.I. Newton and N.J. Shirtcliffe, Soft Matter 6 (4) (2010) 714-719