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Airports are more crowded during the winters. Delays in board flights become longer when the aeroplanes need to be drenched with de-icing fluids. A de-icer is a substance that prevents the formation of ice by lowering the freezing point of water. These fluids help the aircraft fight the frosty winter. But, after the plane takes off, most of the de-icing liquid drops down from the surface and gets mixed with lakes and rivers, resulting in pollution of freshwater bodies.
Sushant Anand, a UIC assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Rukmava Chatterjee, a UIC PhD student, have developed an efficient alternative to conventional de-icers to benefit the demanding industries and consumers and prevent waterbody pollution.
“We questioned the lifetime of the cryoprotectants and looked at new ways to increase their effectiveness,” said Anand. “Glycols dissolve very fast in the water and get washed away before the plane takes off, and 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. And that is what we ended up doing.”
Researchers developed a large family of more than 80 coolants which can be categorized as emulsions, creams, gels and polymeric solutions. The formulations can be applied on copper, glass, plastic, steel, aluminium or other industrial surfaces without doing any expensive surface treatments.
“Our coatings are an all-in-one package which can delay formation of frost for extended hours and simultaneously cause any ice formed on its surface to easily shed off by a gentle breeze or simple substrate tilting,” said Chatterjee.
These long-lasting anti-freezing coatings can create strong adhesion on industrial surfaces, ranging from ice to bacteria, irrespective of the material structure and chemistry. This was engineered by determining the adhesive properties of the material and by making lubricating surfaces that are both non-freezing and slippery.
The coolant gels are transparent, which is crucial for applications like runway lights and traffic signals that help pilots during automotive windshields, landings or building windows.
“Imagine coating your smartwatch with our gel that can inhibit ice accretion in the chilly negatives while simultaneously preventing any bacterial contamination,” said Chatterjee.
“Since our anti-icing sprays are bio-friendly and anti-bacterial, we even think there is a potential to use them in agriculture to prevent crops from being ruined by severe frost,” said Anand. “But that is a pipe dream, and we need to do more studies to see if there will be any long-term adverse effect on the plants.”
A global patent has been filed by UIC’s Office of Technology Management titled “Compositions and Methods for Inhibiting Ice Formation on Surfaces.”
“There is great potential in these materials for many applications, and I think the day when commercial versions of our materials come out just got closer,” said Anand.