Demonstration of a new liquid-impermeable coating.
Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing Demonstration of a new liquid-impermeable coating.

One of the most intriguing areas of innovation in materials science concerns the development of high-performance coatings. Researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan have recently announced the realization of a "superomniphobic surface," for example. Like hydrophobic coatings, the new surface can be used to treat fabrics and other materials in order to repel water. In addition to water, the surface repels the largest number of fluids of any such treatment, including harmful chemicals.

"Virtually any liquid you throw on it bounces right off without wetting it," said Anish Tuteja, assistant professor of materials science and engineering in a university press release. "For many of the other similar coatings, very low surface tension liquids such as oils, alcohols, organic acids, organic bases and solvents stick to them and they could start to diffuse through and that's not what you want."

The coating, which is actually 95 percent air, is otherwise composed of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) particles and liquid-repelling nanocubes developed by Air Force scientists. Thus far, of the many substances tested by the Michigan research team, only two chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been able to deteriorate the surface.

Tuteja and his colleagues anticipate the technology being used in high-performance paints for naval and automotive applications, in addition to protective clothing for soldiers, scientists, and emergency-responders. With further study and commercial development, such a technology could prove to be of huge benefit to architecture as well—especially for extending the life of high-traffic and/or exterior surfaces.

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.