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Clarkson researchers develop versatile oil-repellent technology

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POTSDAM — The same technology that could finally make your khakis stain-free also could protect soldiers from chemical weapons, make microscopic cameras possible and make smudge-free screens for smartphones and tablet computers — and it is being developed at Clarkson University.

Sergiy Minko, who holds the Egon Matijevic Chemistry Chair, said his department has developed the first fully fluid-repellent surface.

“Nature has no surfaces that are oil-repellent,” he said. “Nature is very practical. There are no need; all our life is water-born.”

The technology was inspired by natural surfaces, Mr. Minko said.

“People started to look at the structure on the surfaces of different insects, like insects that move across the surface of water,” he said. “They have a specific morphology on their feet so that this kind of array of wires, this morphology, is critically important.”

Mr. Minko said the technology involves a microscopic surface of nail-shaped pieces that can be adjusted using magnetic fields.

“The insect feet were just water-repellent,” he said. “To be oil-repellent, we discovered that this structure should have an overhang morphology, like caps, like nail heads or mushroom caps, to keep the oil away.”

Using magnetic fields to adjust the shape of the “caps” allows the oil-repellent properties to be turned on and off, Mr. Minko said.

The technology could lead to more efficient fluid-pumping systems.

“You have less friction,” Mr. Minko said. “You can pump liquid through pipes and spend less energy. That is an important aspect.”

A microscopic camera also could be made by using the surface to manipulate a small bubble of fluid acting as a lens.

“It means miniaturized optics, lenses as small as liquid droplets,” Mr. Minko said. “You can use this kind of dynamically changeable shaped droplets to change the zoom.”

The stain-repellent properties also would help protect soldiers and civilians from some chemical and biological weapons, Mr. Minko said.

“These arms act through penetration through skin,” he said. “If you have clothes that repel this liquid, you shut down that mechanism.”

Mr. Minko said the technology could be applied right away, but needs some more research into commercial feasibility before being marketed.

“It is like any technology — initially the computer was incredibly expensive; now everyone has several at home,” he said. “It is the same situation with any technological discovery; it depends. The first step is to just show it is possible. The next step is to develop technology to make it affordable for commercial applications.”

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