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Super Plastic

GE’s new water-sheding coating could lead to self-washing cars.

How would you like a self-washing car or a ketchup bottle whose contents flow freely?

Researchers at General Electric have come up with a way to process a common polymer so that it repels fluid so effectively that even honey rolls right off it. The resulting property is called superhydrophobicity. While the property has long been achieved in expensive materials, GE’s feat was to make it available in a common polycarbonate, Lexan.

The discovery could allow everything from new, easy-to-clean building materials to cheap diagnostic devices with plastic microfluidic channels. In designing the material, GE took inspiration from the leaves of the lotus plant, whose surface cells are five to ten micro-meters wide and topped by tiny wax crystals that are tens of nanometers wide. On a lotus leaf, water beads look like almost perfect spheres.

GE mimicked this pattern on Lexan by “roughening” its surface in a similar way. Tao Deng, a materials scientist at GE, is tight lipped about the process but says it uses a “chemical treatment of the surface.” GE estimates it will take at least five years to commercialize the technology, once all manufacturing issues are resolved.

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