Brief 

Engineers at the University of Houston have put forward a new solution to keep planes ice-free, developing an ice-shedding surface coating they say is 100 times stronger than other state-of-the-art materials.

 

Insight

Keeping airplane wings ice-free is critical to flight safety, but it’s not the easiest of problems to solve. De-icing solutions with heavy chemicals that are sprayed onto aircraft ahead of take-off can keep the wing surfaces clean and functional, but this is labor-intensive and environmentally damaging.

Engineers at the University of Houston have put forward a new solution, developing an ice-shedding surface coating they say is 100 times stronger than other state-of-the-art materials.

The shortcomings with current methods of de-icing surfaces has inspired many researchers to pursue more efficient and environmentally friendly solutions. These have included systems that use heat to melt the ice away, drawing on special graphene coatings, passive solar systems or even electrified concrete for airport runways.

Other materials rely on special grooves to siphon moisture away and prevent ice buildup, or phase-change liquids to repel water away.

The approach taken by the University of Houston engineers centers on the way solid objects detach from surfaces. This process is driven by the application of force and the resulting formation of cracks at the interface. These fractures might start small, but will continue to grow until the object is released.

The researchers were able to essentially manipulate this process with the development of what they call a “fracture-controlled surface.”

The material is heterogenous, with a varying mechanical and chemical composition that is carefully engineered to initiate crack formation at the interface, direct energy toward those cracks and accelerate their growth. This means that ice doesn’t attach to the material, but perhaps more importantly, that the material exhibits great strength.

 

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