Gecko adhesion: a molecular-simulation perspective on the effect of humidity†
Gecko adhesion is investigated by molecular dynamics simulations. It is known, that the gecko adhesion system shows increased pull-off forces in humid environments. A coarse-grained model of gecko beta keratin, previously developed in our group, is extended and used to elucidate the molecular mechanisms involved in this humidity effect on adhesion. We show that neither the change of the elastic properties of gecko keratin, nor capillary forces, can solely explain the increased pull-off forces of wet gecko keratin. Instead, we establish a molecular picture of gecko adhesion where the interplay between capillary bridges and a mediator effect of water, enhances pull-off forces, consistent with observations in AFM experiments at high humidities. We find that water density is raised locally, in molecular scale asperities of the gecko keratin and that this increase in local water density smoothes the surface-spatula interface. Water, which is absorbed into the keratin, acts as a mediator, and leads during pull-off to the dominant contribution in the van der Waals energy, because the dispersion interactions between water and surface are primarily opposing the pull-off.