April 10, 2005 9:00 PM PDT
Nanotech company aims to put paint in the past
Akron, Ohio-based Ecology Coatings has developed a family of "liquid solids" that are cured by exposure to ultraviolet light for a few seconds. Made up of nano-size particles (molecules measuring less than 1 billionth of a meter), the liquid solids developed by the company--along with similar substances made by rivals--could possibly eliminate a lot of the expense involved in applying protective coatings to electronic gadgets or patio furniture. It also doesn't give off hazardous fumes.
DuPont is pitching the material to automakers, while other companies such as NanoDynamics are examining ways to use it in flexible screens or as a heat-resistant coating, said Richard Stromback, CEO of Ecology Coatings. Products containing materials designed by the company could appear in a few months.
While the average person doesn't spend much of his or her day contemplating industrial coatings, it's a considerable headache for manufacturers. Roughly $20 billion is spent on coatings a year, according to the company and industry statistics. Applying these materials also requires employees, factory space and time.
Ecology Coatings essentially replaces a liquid coating, like paint, with a viscous solid. In paint, only about 20 percent to 30 percent of the molecules in the material applied to a surface are actually paint. The rest are carriers or solvents, which evaporate in the curing process.
In the Ecology Coatings material, every molecule becomes part of the coating, along with any added pigments or fillers.
"A liquid solid is something that doesn't evaporate. If you spill it on a floor, it will be there two to three weeks later," said Sally Ramsey, who founded the three-person company 15 years ago. "It is sort of an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) definition of a solid."
The difference creates several beneficial properties. Paint can take up to 20 minutes to dry. The coatings created by the company dry in three seconds. The change drastically reduces the time and space needed for painting.
UV curing also consumes about 75 percent less energy, thereby reducing electrical bills.
As an added bonus, the coatings do not contain volatile organic compounds, found in paint thinners and solvents, or hazardous air pollutants. Because evaporation isn't a normal part of the curing process, manufacturers who use this material are exempt from some Environmental Protection Agency regulations, further reducing costs.
"You might have some minor problems with skin irritation, but there are no birth defect problems and no breathing problems," said Ramsey, who doesn't use carbon in any Ecology Coatings material to avoid health problems.
So how does it work? The molecules each contain a photo inhibitor. When UV light hits it, the light knocks electrons loose from the molecules. In their agitated state, the individual molecules all bind to each other, creating a uniform coating.
"This is free radical curing," Ramsey said.
The relatively small size of the molecules also means that they are naturally transparent, important for things like small OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens. The small size of the molecules can also help waterproof materials.
Coatings and industrial materials are emerging as the first market for nanotechnology products. Molecules from Nano-Tex have helped create the market for stain- and wrinkle-resistant pants, while other companies are working on socks that don't smell, thanks to embedded nano-size particles of silver.
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