Plants are sophisticated hydraulic machines, using flow-controlled processes in place of vasculature, muscles, and nervous systems. Chemical engineering problems require similar flow control abilities to enhance transport, responsiveness, and mixing.
Recent progress in soft matter has shown promise in passively providing these features because soft materials can respond sensitively and non-linearly to viscous, mechanical, or osmotic stresses. However, these advances present a unique challenge: highly deformable and mechanically non-linear materials are difficult to implement efficiently into system designs.
To address this challenge, the NIFE lab uses biomimetics to relate complex biological functions to simple physical properties, enabling us to engineer smarter functional soft materials. In particular, we investigate how plants use couplings between flow, colloids, and hydrogels to regulate nutrient distribution, stress responses, and even move themselves. We then harvest these physics to design novel materials for passive control over batch flows, water distribution, and soft robotics.
BIOLOGICAL MULTIPHASE FLOW
Plants live quietly, but dangerously. This danger comes from their singular reliance on water. As a result, plants have become experts at manipulating water through varying environmental conditions. Such water flow is fine-tuned by poroelastic membranes, responsive hydrogel coatings, colloidal clogging cycles, and liquid phase changes. Our goal is to use biomimetic experiments to understand and leverage these abilities for novel engineering tools.