Discovery Files

Engineers create frost-resistant, ice-phobic coatings

Alternatives to conventional de-icing technology could reduce environmental harm

Engineers partially supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation have created a new family of frost-resistant and ice-phobic coatings that offer a more durable and efficient solution for industries like aviation, transportation and manufacturing. The results answer two concerns about de-icing fluids -- surface degradation and environmental harm from runoff.

"We questioned the lifetime of these cryoprotectants and looked at new ways to increase their effectivity," co-author Sushant Anand said. "Glycols dissolve very fast in water and get washed away before a plane takes off.  It's a serious problem that costs hundreds of millions of dollars -- most of which literally ends up in the drain. We thought, why not improve such chemicals themselves, and make alternatives that can last longer while being more biofriendly."

The University of Illinois Chicago engineers developed more than 80 ice-phobic coatings, including polymeric solutions, emulsions, creams and gels. The coatings can be easily used on most industrial surfaces.

"Our coatings are an all-in-one package that can delay formation of frost for extended hours and cause any ice formed on a surface to easily shed off in a gentle breeze or simple substrate tilting," said study co-author Rukmava Chatterjee.

The coatings are also transparent, critical for traffic signals, planes and glass.

"Imagine coating your smartwatch with a gel that can inhibit ice accretion in the chilly negatives while preventing bacterial contamination," Chatterjee said.

"Since our anti-icing sprays are bio-friendly and anti-bacterial, we think there is a potential to use them in agriculture to prevent crops from being ruined by severe frost," Anand said. "But we need to do more studies to see if there will be any long-term adverse effect on the plants. There is great potential in these materials for many applications."