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April 1, 2023

How to Walk on Water

Cross-disciplinary science at ISTA yields mind-boggling invention

Have you ever wondered about walking on water? Now science has the answers. Driven by a pure fascination of basic research, a collaborative effort by scientists at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA) resulted in a remarkable breakthrough: A shoe that allows you to walk on water.

The Shoe-STA. Cross-disciplinary research led to the invention of a shoe that allows you to walk on water. © ISTA

On the banner of Scott Waitukaitis’s lab website a foot is seen taking a step effortlessly on water. This image has remained on the lab’s digital face for several years. Earlier, it only served as an image that inspires and intrigues but today it has become a reality.

Stemming from the open questions asked by the Waitukaitis group that focuses on “Soft and Complex Materials” and “Non-Newtonian Liquids”, the invention of Shoe-STA has been made possible by changing the viscosity of the water directly under the shoe on impact. The result is athletic footwear designed by ISTA’s Miba Machine Shop and brought to fruition by the graphic simulations run by the Wotjan group on a completely novel material embedded with bio-mimetic nanoparticles. “We have had to keep this under wraps for a long time and I’m glad and very proud that this is now out into the world,” says Waitukaitis.

FGK9 – The all-rounder molecule

At the heart of this invention, lies a series of discoveries made by a cluster of Biological Science groups at ISTA. In 2016, the Sazanov group confirmed, the mechanical workings of the tiny but effective molecular machine called “FGK9”, which produces the energy to stay on top of the water.

The potential of this biological super-complex in crossing over to non-newtonian physics was identified by the Schanda group. Explaining the lab’s approach, Paul Schanda says: “Life is in motion. While one immediately realizes the inherently dynamic aspect of living organisms on the macroscopic level, simply by observing it by eye or under a microscope, it is clear that ultimately it is the jiggling and wiggling of the atoms within molecules, and their interactions with each other, that allows many aquatic animals to move on and through water.”

The presence of FGK9 has been known for a while, as the molecular machine was found surprisingly abundantly in the guts of zebrafish (Danio rerio). With the help of the Aquatics Facility, where zebrafish stocks are maintained, the group led by Andela Saric, specializing in the study of hydrophobic cell membranes was able to model the impregnation of these molecular machines in a water-insoluble way into the novel material that Shoe-STA is made of.

Molecule hidden in zebrafish. FGK9 was found in the guts of zebrafish and helped scientists to develop the novel material. © Nadine Poncioni / ISTA

Transferring innovation to a prototype

Martin Hetzer, the President of ISTA applauded the scientists involved and lauded the invention as the discovery of ISTA’s history to date.
Wearing the shoes on the campus pond, he says: “I am very proud of ISTA research and these shoes are proof that the impossible is achievable when scientists join forces. The technology transfer—right from Scott’s theoretical approaches to the Machine Shop’s brilliant design—brings it all together and gives us the ability to walk on water. How amazing is that?”

Furthermore, ISTA Professor and Vice President of Technology Transfer Bernd Bickel, who leads “Computer Graphics and Digital Fabrication” has appealed to the wider industry to take note of the invention’s various applications. “This is just one product that we have been able to incubate at IST Park as a result of this large research collaboration. As one can imagine, the possibilities are endless and Shoe-STA is bound to cause ripples across many fields.”

Athletic footwear comes to life. ISTA’s own Miba Machine Shop puts scientific input spanning different disciplines into reality. © ISTA

First steps in new shoes

The novel shoes have already mastered their first assignment. Last Saturday, members of the ISTA Sustainability Group chained themselves to the island in the ISTA pond, potentially inspired by recent acts of civil disobedience by climate activist groups. As most people wondered how they got to the island completely dry, one of them revealed that they had taken turns using the Shoe-STA prototype to get there. Among their other demands, the group demanded that invention should be used for a common good—the preparedness for life on water as sea levels rise due to climate change.

The shoes will be showcased at the upcoming three-week-long summer camps at ISTA. Owing to the recent invention, a race on the ISTA pond is being organized by a group of athlete-scientists involved in the project as a special display and demonstration event of the invention.

Walking on the pond. The shoe-STA prototype was used by the Sustainability Group to walk over the pond. © ISTA

Backsplash from other industries

However, not everyone is excited about this incredible breakthrough. Water based industries such as swimming instructors as well as boat rental proprietors have already published an open letter against the technology, stating that the discovery will “blow them out of the water.”


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