HOUSTON — Nanotechnology’s latest party trick involves red wine and a pair of white jeans.
Shay Curran, the University of Houston’s nanotechnology expert, does it like this: Pour the wine onto the jeans and watch it pool up like water on glass. Then give the jeans a quick snap and watch the wine fall right off.
Because of a special coating made of particles so tiny and thin that they can’t be felt by the human hand, the white jeans stay as good as new, Curran said.
Curran used the trick in Europe, while demonstrating the University of Houston’s first nanotechnology product during a competition in the Netherlands.
“They were saying do something interesting, do wine,” said Curran, who is the director of the university’s Institute for NanoEnergy.
Five companies — makers of carpets, fabrics, threads, tarp and glass — will be the first to test the coating, said Curran, who is CEO of a firm called C-Voltaics that the university is spinning off to sell the coating.
Spinoff companies are common for research universities, which get royalties from technology developed in their labs. While the University of Houston has at least 17 such companies, however, C-Voltaics is its first in the field of nanotechnology, which Rice University has dominated in Texas.
The businesses testing C-Voltaics’ material probably will begin selling products treated with the coating as early as next spring, Curran said, and C-Voltaics also hopes to begin selling a consumer-oriented wood coating online within the next eight weeks.
Nanotechnology is at the heart of the coating, which originally was made to keep solar panels clean and efficient.
The material is made with particles 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair, Curran said.
The coating sticks onto a surface and blocks any other material from adhering, he said. As a result, it can block a host of filth from building up on a window or sinking into a rug.
“We didn’t realize at the start the wide range of the applications,” said Nigel Alley, a research assistant and a professor in the university’s physics department. “It was only as we started to experiment with new materials we realized the scope and scale that could be applied in so many different areas.”
And experiment, they did. The team tested the coating on glass, clothes, wood and carpets, among other materials. Many of the researchers’ ideas came from home, where they’d witness spills or stains.
“My wife would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had…’ and then I’d come into the lab and I’d say, ‘Why don’t we try this?’” Curran said.
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Curran initially had trouble thinking of places, particularly in a kitchen, where the coating wouldn’t be useful.
“Where could the benefit be of having something that prevents mildew, mold, bacteria growing, or something to keep it stain free?” Curran said.
Towels, he realized, would be a bad idea. “That’s probably a lousy application, because it just doesn’t absorb water,” he said.
That still leaves plenty of good applications, but the products’ success will depend on whether the team can produce the material at high speed and consistent quality.
Researchers developed the material during work on six projects under combined funding of about $2 million from the university and the U.S. Energy and Defense departments, Curran said.
He declined to disclose the amount of private investment involved in commercializing the material, or the value of contracts C-Voltaics now has with other businesses.
Curran said he’s confident that the company’s products will succeed.
“We were vetted by people in the business community as well as investors,” Curran said. “So all those questions that an academic wouldn’t actually face, we’ve been asked those questions.”
UH is following a path blazed by Rice University, which leads the world in published research and patents in nanotechnology — a field greatly influenced by Rice chemists Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, said Andrew Barron, a professor of chemistry specializing in nanotechnology at Rice.
Smalley and Curl shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry with British chemist Harry Kroto in 1996 for key discoveries in the field.
While lab work has led to breakthroughs in nanotechnology, preparing the technology to be sold in the real world is not easy, Barron said.
“It’s all very well in the laboratory to make a sample of materials and it has this wonderful quality,” Barron said. “But then industry says it wants 2 million pounds a week of that material. Well, that’s a big problem.”
Barron said that Rice, which has more than 40 spinoff companies, has been able to scale up its nanotechnology discoveries with success.
One company produces nanomaterials Barron developed that do nearly the opposite of Curran’s coating — attracting water into a material rather than keeping it out. Barron said oil companies are using the material to help separate water from other fluids that flow out of a freshly drilled well.
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But before the material was ready for industry use, Barron and his colleagues had to develop a way to make commercial quantities of it.
Curran and his UH team had to do the same thing.
They realized they needed a large vat that could facilitate heated reactions to produce materials for the coating. The team took inspiration from distilleries, since the coating uses ethanol — similar to materials in hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol — to help spray the particles onto a surface.
“When we were trying to make this stuff, because we knew our solvent solution was going to be ethanol, it was the booze industry that we looked at,” Curran said.
Curran hopes that a production vat now installed at the University of Houston will produce 400 gallons a day of material to be used in the coatings.
Reflecting recently as he examined the new vat, Curran said he’s come a long way from analyzing nanomaterials in a lab.
“When we were first doing it,” he said, “we never envisioned anything like this.”
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