University researchers give cockroaches the slip

Scientists at Cambridge University have developed an insect-repellent coating which they claim could form the basis of an entirely new approach to pest control, and are now looking for partners to commercialise the technology.

The new coating, which is said to be cheap, durable, non-toxic and environmentally safe, tricks insect feet into making them lubricate themselves, according to its designers, Jan-Henning Dirks, Christofer Clemente and Walter Federle of the university's Department of Zoology.  

Insects are capable of clinging to almost any natural and artificial surface by using an emulsion with properties similar to custard or ketchup. They secrete this fluid from pads located on the bottom of their feet. When studying insect pads in detail, the zoologists discovered that the special surface coating can change the properties of this fluid - it turns the adhesive secretion into a lubricant and the insects start slipping, like someone with wet feet in the shower.

Jan-Henning Dirks, who studied insect adhesion for his PhD, said about the unexpected discovery: "We first came across these surface properties quite by accident, but soon we realised that this could actually be something really useful."

In lab tests (shown in this video), insects were able to climb with ease a glass rod coated with non-stick PTFE. However, insects trying to reach an apple slice at the top of the glass rod coated with the new material slipped, because on the new material, their feet reached on average only about 40 per cent of the friction forces they showed on PTFE.

The Cambridge team claimed the new coating has the potential to restrict the movement of many insects, including ants, cockroaches, termites and locusts, yet does not harm the insects.

"We are very excited by the potential of this completely new approach to pest control that has arisen from a basic research project into insect adhesion," said Gillian Davis, technology manager at Cambridge Enterprise, the university's commercialisation arm.

"We have patented the technology and are now seeking a commercial partner to work with the inventors to develop the technology. Surfaces at risk of infestation both inside and outside the home may benefit from the insect repellent coatings. From crop protection to pest-proof ventilation pipes, furniture and Wellingtons, as well as insect-repellent food containers and baby bottles, the practical applications are endless - and hugely exciting."

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