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Clean Transport Harvard engineers develop nano-materials that prevent ice buildup on roads

Published on November 13th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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Nano-Engineering Could Spell the End of Road Salt

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November 13th, 2010 by
 
Harvard engineers develop nano-materials that prevent ice buildup on roadsRoad salt, which keeps our roads and highways passable in winter while poisoning nearby environments, leaching into streams and lakes, and doing nasty things to the metal parts of our cars, may be on its way out. Engineers at Harvard University are developing new nanostructured materials that can prevent surfaces from icing by repelling water before it has a chance to freeze. Along with eliminating the direct impacts of salt on the environment, the new materials would also cut carbon emissions related to shipping and spreading road salt.

New Nano-Surfaces that Prevent Ice Buildup

The engineers based their approach on the fact that ice buildup is a dynamic process that occurs over time, and they modeled their materials on bristles and other repellent surfaces found in nature. High speed video playback of water droplets hitting the surfaces revealed the forces at play in ice prevention. When water hits a smooth surface, it spreads out, clings and freezes. When it hits a repellent surface, it acts like a rubber ball in a cartoon: it flattens out on impact but then springs back to its round shape and bounces away.

The Next Step for Environmentally Friendly De-Icing

The engineers note that nano-structured materials could be used as coatings for airplanes and other objects, as well as for road surfaces. The labwork is promising and real-world testing has begun. It’s also possible that the new materials could be used in tandem with other sustainable de-icing technologies on the horizon, such as solar energy harvested from road surfaces.

Image: Road salt by benimoto on flickr.com

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • dean

    sounds like a great idea. i just wonder what the ramifications will be for the ‘used’ nanos. how will it effect the ecosystem?

    • Tina Casey

      Dean: Good point, for example the use of nanoparticles in toiletries is posing a challenge for wastewater treatment systems.

  • LWB_Sr

    Sounds like a terrific breakthrough! Wonder how much it costs?

    • Tina Casey

      There are a lot of kinks to work out…for example, if the material is to be used on road surfaces, how much wear and tear can it take before it loses effectiveness?

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