General Observations slow Sustainability/environmental

A drop in the Chemex?

Chemex, 30g, coffee
How do you prepare your coffee?

How do you prepare your coffee? Generally I’ll either use the Chemex or a French press. Often it will be the French press purely because it is, sadly, quicker. However, on those mornings that I do slow down to prepare a Chemex, I generally feel better for it. Not only does the coffee taste better, but those 5 minutes of preparing the coffee pay off as time for the mind to wander rather than just time spent waiting for the caffeine. When the Chemex is nearly ready, the fresh brew drips slowly from the filter onto the liquid below. Each drop produces a ripple pattern. At the start of the UN conference on climate change in Paris (COP21), we may well hear talk of some of our efforts being mere “drops in the ocean”. So it seems a good time to reflect on those “drops in the Chemex”. Just how much influence can a drop  have?

It is worth stopping for one moment to consider what is going on around us at this moment. As I write this, it is late November in the Northern Hemisphere. Taking a walk outside, I can see the last of the yellow leaves falling off the trees. In just a couple of weeks time, many of the trees will be bare. Why do the leaves fall from the trees? We could answer this question in a number of different ways. Biologically, the tree is forming cells at the joint between the leaf and the tree that will eventually enable the leaf to tear from the tree. As these cells are, in some way, responsible for the leaf falling off, they are called “abscission” cells. But even with these abscission cells, the leaf still needs something to force the leaf off. Often this is the wind which is why we get such an abundance of leaf fall on windy days. However there is another mechanism that can help a leaf to drop, and that is a curious interplay between the leaf and rain.

autumnal scene, red leaves, hydrophilic
The surface of the leaf changes from waterproof to ‘wettable’ over the course of the summer

In the spring, many species of tree, including Oak, develop a wax layer on the leaf. Perhaps you have been walking in the country and have needed to wax your walking boots before you go? The wax on the boots acts as a waterproofing for the boot, ensuring that your feet don’t get soggy. The wax on an oak leaf performs the same function for the leaf, it makes the leaf waterproof. Although this is not the only function of the wax. It seems that a waxy surface also slows the processes that dry out the leaf, prevents insects and pathogens attacking the leaves and may even play a role in affecting the way that the light is concentrated into the leaves for photosynthesis. Nonetheless, from the tree’s perspective, it is a significant advantage to have waterproof leaves. Imagine rain falling onto a waterproof surface. The drops of rain do not ‘wet’ the leaves but instead roll off. As the raindrops roll off, they take particles of dust and dirt with them. It is a tree’s way of cleaning itself. Waterproof surfaces are self-cleaning surfaces. Something that some scientists are now trying to replicate for man-made products.

hydrophobic leaves
Some leaves are more waterproof than others.

As the summer continues and the leaf gets older, the wax layer changes. The structure of the wax changes and erodes as the wind, weather and even pollution batter the wax layer. Just as with the hiking boots, the damaged wax layer results in a less waterproof leaf. The leaf becomes “wettable”. When a drop falls on a surface, the shape of the droplet is determined by how waterproof the surface is (more details here). A surface is termed “wettable” when the droplet becomes significantly flatter and coats the surface rather than forming a spherical drop that can roll off. Now consider each raindrop as it hits the different types of leaf. In the spring, the leaf is waterproof and the raindrops will roll off them. A drop of rain will cause the leaf to shake on its stem but then to return to its original position. It is ultimately not affected by a light rain shower. In the autumn when the leaves are no longer waterproof, the rain will start to stick to the leaf surface. Now when the leaf shakes, the wet leaf will not return to its original position but will bend slightly further downwards. As it continues to rain, the leaf will experience a greater torque and this means that it is more likely to fall off the tree. As each rain drop hits the leaf, the likelihood that the leaf will tear away from the abscission cells at the base of the leaf increases. Each drop has an effect.

This also has an important consequence for some of our technology. One renewable energy source that has been proposed for self-powering electronic devices harnesses the energy of rain. When rain falls on an array of cantilevers, it forces the cantilever to bend and to oscillate. This energy can be harvested ( that is, changed into a form that is useful to us) by using small piezo-electric devices (that convert movement into electricity or vice versa) at the  base of the cantilever. When a tree leaf is wet, the leaf joint experiences a greater torque which causes the leaf to ultimately tear from the tree. For the rain-energy harvesters, this is exactly what we want. The greatest energy obtainable from the cantilever system will be from cantilevers that can be made wet. Waterproof cantilevers would be a bad idea. A renewable energy that comes from rain would definitely be a positive development for UK energy production!

It seems that one coffee drop does indeed go a long way.