Lotus leaves
A man collects lotus flowers from a field of the flowers on the West Lake in HanoReuters/Nguyen Huy Kham

Lotus leaves could help to clean up oil spills without using powerful chemicals, according to new research from Ohio State University.

Scientists at the university developed a special mesh material inspired by the lotus leaf and its "lotus effect".

The mesh uses a nano-engineered coating to repel oil, but let water through – the opposite effect of the leaves which repel water, but not oil.

"If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net," said Professor Bharat Bhushan in a statement.

"Oil contamination is a major issue, so the goal here is to separate oil from water."

"We're doing it on a small scale, and we believe that it can be scaled up so that in a larger scale, this technology can be applied."

Giant oil filters

The researchers tested the material by mixing water with oil in a beaker before pouring the mixture onto the non-toxic, stainless steel mesh.

The water filtered through while the oil collected on top, where it was easily transferred into a separate beaker.

"You could create a large fabric with a wire mesh with this coating, and this could filter out the oil rather easily, depending on size of fabric you use, and how you mechanise it," Bhushan said in the statement. "It should be relatively simple to do that."

Two separate papers published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports detail the findings of the research.

Bhushan was inspired by the unique texture of lotus leaves, which have self-cleaning properties that are a result of very high water repellance, known as superhydrophobicity.

"We've studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems," Bhushan said. "Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems."