Collecting Water in the Desert

Desert-dwelling plants like cactuses have to be efficient collectors of water. Many types of cactus are particularly good at gathering water from fog that condenses on their spines. Droplets that form near a spine’s tip move slowly but inexorably toward the base of the spine so that the cactus can absorb them. The secret to this clever transport lies in the microstructure of the spine’s surface. The

Gymnocalycium baldianum cactus, for example, has splayed scales along its spines. Capillary interactions with the scales result in differences in curvature on either side of the droplet. Curved fluid surfaces generate what’s known as Laplace pressure, with a tighter radius of curvature causing a larger Laplace pressure. Because the curvature of the droplet varies from the base side to the tip side of the spine, the difference in Laplace pressures across the droplet creates a force that drives the droplet toward the spine’s base. (Image credit: C. Liu et al., source)

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