The Wolverine Leaf

September 22, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds Brit Trogen


What once was a man, is now the Wolverine. And what once was a leaf, is now... a magnetic leaf?


Chemists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces have taken the next step in merging nature with technology by converting the skeleton of a rubber tree leaf into iron carbide. And just like Wolverine, the newly converted leaves are magnetic, able to withstand extremely high amounts of stress, and looking for blood. 


Okay... Everything but that last one. The leaf skeletons are also able to stand up to high temperatures and conduct electricity. But the exciting thing isn't necessarily the properties of the leaves. It's the process that was taken to convert them, and the broader mind-set behind using nature's structures as catalysts for the production of synthetic materials; in this case, wafer-thin metal carbides. Through a process that starts by soaking in iron acetate, and ends with heating to 700 degrees Celsius, the researchers have opened the door for a new wave of synthetic polymers; using fine natural structures as the starting point for chemical reactions. What works for a leaf could work just as well for a porous sponge or creeping vines. And with some tweaking, fibers or networks derived from these processes could potentially replace much more expensive metals like platinum in fuel cell electrodes, according to Dr. Zoë Schnepp, the leading researcher of the team.


I can't imagine a more perfect combination of science with nature. I mean, everybody wins in this one, right? We get a more sustainable and cost-effective method of producing synthetic materials, the rubber tree loses a couple leaves but is left mostly unharmed, and we keep a secret government agency watching over the mutant leaves so they never learn of their origins and come back to hunt us down in the future. 


What could go wrong?


Schnepp Z, Yang W, Antonietti M, & Giordano C (2010). Biotemplating of metal carbide microstructures: the magnetic leaf. Angewandte Chemie (International ed. in English), 49 (37), 6564-6 PMID: 20715026



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