The gecko adhesive system is a dry, reversible adhesive that is virtually surface-insensitive due to the utilization of intermolecular van der Waals forces. Remarkably, although detailed models of the adhesive mechanism exist and hundreds of gecko-inspired synthetics have been fabricated, our ability to fully replicate the system still falls short. One reason for this is our limited understanding of how the system performs in natural environments. To begin to resolve this I focused on one particular environmental parameter, water. Although thin layers of water can disrupt van der Waals forces, I hypothesized that geckos are able to retain or regain adhesive function on wet surfaces. I was motivated to investigate this hypothesis because many species of gecko are native to the tropics, a climate where we expect surface water to be prevalent, thus it is likely geckos have some mechanism to overcome the challenges associated with surface water and wetting.
Despite the challenge water should pose to adhesion, I found that when tested on hydrophobic substrates geckos cling equally well in air and water. Conversely, on wet hydrophilic substrates geckos cannot support their body weight. Investigating these results further, I found that the superhydrophobic nature of the adhesive toe pads allows geckos to form an air bubble around their foot, which when pressed into contact with a hydrophobic substrate likely removes water from the adhesive interface. When the toe pads are no longer superhydrophobic however, geckos cannot support their body weight and fall from substrates. In order to regain adhesion geckos only need to take about ten steps on a dry substrate to self-dry their toe pads. Finally, when measuring a dynamic component of adhesion, running, we found that geckos are able to maintain speed on misted hydrophobic and hydrophilic substrates, contrary to what we would predict based on static shear adhesion measurements.
In conclusion, my research provides a detailed investigation of how water affects the gecko adhesive system and has applications for synthetic design of adhesives which retain or regain function in water and further motivates the study of this remarkable system in a more environmentally relevant context.