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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Rust-less steel and nano-paint future of UW Engineering

Most people on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus walk past the old, three-story brick building along Lakeshore path without a second thought. On the outside, it looks like an abandoned warehouse used for storing lab equipment or boats from Lake Mendota in the winter. What is actually inside is more surprising: a nano-technology development lab that could change life as we know it.

Inside the Water Science and Engineering laboratory building are fully functioning research laboratories generating a cutting-edge technology that will become part of both industry and agriculture used in every room of every household.

Marc A. Anderson and his wife, Senior Scientist Isabel Tejedor-Anderson, both researchers at UW-Madison, have been working with nanoparticles as a solution to corrosion prevention for the last 25 years. What they came up with was nano-porous oxide coating, or more simply: a nano-paint.

Five years ago, Anderson began working with the National Science Foundation on a Bisphenol A-free or BPA-free coating for the tin-can industry. The solution, he said, was using an inorganic coating.

Anderson explained how all tin cans have organic coatings, which contain the BPA compound in them, a known carcinogen.

“The tin can industry is looking for alternatives,” Anderson said.

The alternative he and his wife created is a water-based inorganic nanotechnology coating that is not only BPA-free, but has qualities that would be hugely beneficial to many industries.

The nano-coating is also very strong. “Because it is chemically bonded to the surface, it cannot be scratched off,” Anderson said. He reached for a white ceramic tile–a telltale shine is the only clue that it has been coated. Anderson then pulled out a quarter and scratched the edge across the surface. There was a screeching, like nails on a chalkboard, and all that was left behind was a horrible grey streak. He rubbed his thumb over it, and the streak disappeared, without a scratch left behind.

“Organic paints can be scratched off, which is where corrosion begins, in these small marks,” Anderson said.

With this product, that is not a concern.

Rodolfo Pérez is a senior scientist working in Anderson’s lab and is currently experimenting with a nano-coating product that can be applied to metals to prevent corrosion in nearly any environment.

“Right now, 4 percent of annual economic output in the U.S. is lost to corrosion,” Pérez said.

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He explained that even a little surface corrosion can compromise the integrity of any metal, creating a frequent need to replace rusted machinery or an expensive investment  in alloyed metals, metals composed of two or more elements, which are still subject to corrosion.

Pérez takes out several shining, three-by-one-inch steel plates that are the same size as a microscope slide, which Pérez calls “coupons.” The bottom half of the coupons exhibit a fantastic shine, completely colorless and see-through, but distinctly different than the metallic luster on the top half of the plate. The shine indicates where the coupon has been dipped in the nano-coating.

“The nano particles in the coating are extremely small, about the size of a hair on a microbe,” Pérez said. “This means it does not change the dimensions of the metal, so it can be bent and shaped even after it is coated.”

Besides strength and invisibility, Anderson explains that the coating also has photo catalytic properties. When light is shined on the surface, it actually becomes anti-bacterial.

“Imagine this is a men’s bathroom door handle,” Anderson said as he held up a fiberglass rod. “It would actually kill the bacteria from their hands.”

Working through a new start-up technology company called Bust the Rust, Pérez has been sending out his coupons to various companies to put to the test. In the energy industry, the coated coupons will be exposed to highly corrosive hydrogen sulfide, and some agriculture businesses have already expressed interest in trying it on some of their harvesting machinery.

“Corrosion is a case-by-case scenario,” Pérez said, “and it usually occurs in critical areas of the production processes, so applications of this technology will also be case-by-case.”

Using an anticorrosion coating will save companies the cost of part replacement in critical production areas. Additionally, the ability to strengthen stainless steel, which is much cheaper than alloyed metals, also makes this product even more attractive. Pérez states this would save companies the price of consistently buying expensive reinforced metals for their machinery.

The technology is still in beta-testing; however, though preliminary lab results have shown promise, Pérez still wants to see how the coating performs in various corrosive environments. The possibilities for this coating are endless.

“Anything you can put water on can be coated, like glass, metals, and ceramic,” Pérez said.

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