Programmable Capillary Action

Close-up view of a single, 3D-printed unit cell as capillary action fills it.

Capillary action combines the cohesive forces within a liquid and the adhesive forces between a liquid and solid to enable a liquid to fill narrow spaces, even against the force of gravity. To control capillary action, researchers are 3D-printing what they call “unit cells,” tiny structures that water and other liquids can climb. There’s no pump raising the liquid through these structures, just capillary action.

In a particularly neat demonstration of the technology, the researchers built a tree-like structure out of many open-walled unit cells and placed the “root” system in a closed reservoir. Capillary action drew liquid up the structure to the tips of its branches, where the dyed water evaporated. The process is similar to transpiration in trees, though in trees, capillary action provides much less of the lift. (Image and research credit: N. Dudukovic et al.; via Nature; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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