Fun with Science
Oystein Fjeldberg, Staff Writer
As part of his internship with United Protective Technologies, senior Sam Efird of Wingate University has developed a superhydrophobic coating that can be easily applied onto a surface in order to make it perfectly water-repelling.
For a little over a year, chemistry business major Sam Efird has worked as an intern at United Protective Technologies (UPT). UPT is a research and development company that specializes in thin layer coatings, and has helped the United States military solve several costly issues.
Before he started his internship, the company had already developed a superhydrophobic (water-repelling) coating called FAFS. The coating is based on the lotus leaf, a plant that has inspired scientists for decades to mimic its curiously water-repelling properties.
It is also self-repairing; if any damage is afflicted to the coating, it will repair itself through a chemical process known as osmosis (local fluctuations in the chemical concentration of the coating are smoothed out as chemicals move to eliminate the deviations).
As part of his internship, Sam was challenged to modify the coating in order to see if it could be improved in any way. He worked on this on his own and was free to do whatever he believed was best in order for the research to succeed. The experience was undoubtedly very different to what he had been exposed to as a student.
“You do a lot of research with a lot of trial and error, until you find out what works,” Sam said of the process. “It’s very different from the labs we do as part of a class, where you’re told ‘Here’s an experiment, here’s what to do’, and then you do it, whereas in an internship you’re told ‘here is what we got, figure out how to get it to work’. The boss doesn’t tell you what to do, he just tells you what to accomplish.”
Through independent research Sam successfully developed another superhydrophobic coating, given the acronym CAFS. This coating differs from the FAFS coating mainly in that it is safe for food contact, which opens up new possibilities for the applications of the water-repelling coating.
The product will be sold as a liquid mixture; the superhydrophobic chemicals that will make up the coating float around in liquids that evaporate in room temperature. This mixture can then be sprayed onto the surface that is to be coated, and once the liquids evaporate, the surface is left with only the hydrophobic chemicals, which form the coating.
The coating has wide-ranging applications, and companies in various sectors have contacted UPT about the product.
“One of them wished to put it on the surface of their boats so that they resist biofouling,” Sam said. Since the water-repelling coating would minimize the amount of direct contact between ocean water and the surface of the boats, it would also reduce drag and thus preserve fuel.
A multinational household product corporation has shown interest in using the coating for the containers of their detergents and fabric softeners. By applying the coating on the inside of the containers nothing would stick to the surface, and retrieving all of the cleaning product from the container would be as simple as letting it pour out from the opening. Consumers would then easily be able to use all of the cleaning product that they paid for.
Sam believes that, if everything goes right, the coating could get into the market in about half a year to one year from now.
Going forward, Sam and the company will attempt to refine their formula so that the coating becomes more transparent. This would give the product even more possibilities.
“It could give us windows that never get wet, fog, or ice over, and there would be no need for windshield wipers in cars,” Sam said.
As an undergraduate student approaching the conclusion of his studies, the internship has provided Sam with valuable experience.
“The best thing about the internship,” he said, “is the actual stuff that I created.”
Sam will complete his undergraduate degree this spring, and he is hopeful that his internship will be expanded into a full-time position following graduation.