A Bio-inspired Design for a Switchable Elastocapillary Adhesive

23 November 2017
Matthew Butler

Many species of insects adhere to vertical and inverted surfaces using footpads that secrete thin films of a mediating fluid. The fluid bridges the gap between the foot and the target surface. The precise role of this liquid is still subject to debate, but it is thought that the contribution of surface tension to the adhesive force may be significant. It is also known that the footpad is soft, suggesting that capillary forces might deform its surface. Inspired by these physical ingredients, we study a model problem in which a thin, deformable membrane under tension is adhered to a flat, rigid surface by a liquid droplet. We find that there can be multiple possible equilibrium states, with the number depending on the applied tension and aspect ratio of the system. The presence of elastic deformation  ignificantly enhances the adhesion force compared to a rigid footpad. A mathematical model shows that the equilibria of the system can be controlled via two key parameters depending on the imposed separation of the foot and target surface, and the tension applied to the membrane. We confirm this finding experimentally and show that the system may transition rapidly between two states as the two parameters are varied. This suggests that different strategies may be used to adhere strongly and then detach quickly.

  • Industrial and Applied Mathematics Seminar