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Nanotech protection

March 24, 2010

It’s a housekeeper’s dream come true – and a nightmare for cleaning companies: a flexible, ultra-slim glass layer, based on silica, makes surfaces repel unwelcome substances from liquid to dirt and even bacteria.

Dark liquid pooled up on a white carpet protected with a layer of nanoparticles
A clear layer of protective glass you can walk onImage: nanopool

It’s flexible, thinner than a human hair and protects everything from cups to concrete against liquids, dirt and germs. It's called 'Liquid Glass,' and is the latest trend in the world of nanotechnology.

Liquid Glass works by merging with the treated material and becoming an impenetrable barrier – impervious even to UV-radiation. Although it hardens within half an hour, the glass remains flexible so it can also be sprayed on textiles, such as carpets, in order to make them dirt- and smell-resistant.

The world's smallest guitar is 10 micrometers long -- about the size of a single cell -- with six strings each about 50 nanometers, or 100 atoms, wide.
Nanotechnology was used to create the smallest guitar in the world measuring 10 micrometers - roughly the size of a cellImage: Cornell University/D. Carr and H. Craighead

At the same time, the layer acts just like a membrane, allowing the surface underneath to breathe; from the inside, water and oxygen can diffuse through the barrier.

Nanopool, a family-owned company in Germany, holds patent rights on the widely-praised technology. Dieter Schwindt, who established the company in 2001, told Deutsche Welle that the product is based on SiO2, known as silica, which is the second most common compound on Earth and the main component of glass.

"Our secret is that we’ve found a way to apply the silica – dissolved in water or alcohol – to any surface without energy and to let it harden at room temperature," Schwindt said, and added that the glass coating can be applied simply by spraying or wiping it on a surface.

Since cleaning items coated with Liquid Glass requires only pure water, Schwindt predicts that his product will cut the need for cleaning supplies by up to 90 percent. So in the future, Liquid Glass could also contribute to a healthier environment.

What’s the catch?

Nanomaterials aren't new. In fact potters have been working with them since at least the Middle Ages. They would cover their urns and jugs in a glaze and subject them to high heat in ovens. The heat would alter the structure of the glaze, turning it into a protective barrier – a procedure that is still practiced to this day.

However, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been making more and more synthetic nanomaterials, i.e. any substances that measure less than 100 nanometers in at least one dimension. They can be found in cosmetics like sunscreen and makeup and, when added to food, for example, nanomaterial can significantly extend shelf life.

However, not everyone is convinced of how wonderful they are. "The problem with nanoparticles is that they have novel properties, which can be beneficial for industry, but can also post new risks. The toxic profile might be completely different from the same material in larger size," Jurek Vengels from Friends of the Earth Germany told Deutsche Welle.

A water droplet pooled together on a stone
The glass layer conforms around every nook and crannyImage: nanopool

Lack of research on potential risks

Due to their small size, nanoparticles easily enter living organisms and may harm them by being more toxic than natural substances. But according to Schwindt, Liquid Glass doesn't pose this risk.

"What we do is different: the coating itself is less than 100 nanometers thick and therefore can be labeled as nanotechnology; yet it can do without discrete particles, because it’s a continuous film," says Schwindt.

He added that various studies confirm Liquid Glass has no harmful impact on humans, animals or nature.

"The company says that it’s free from nanoparticles. If that’s true, the problems we usually associate with particles do not apply to Liquid Glass," Vengels said.

History and future

Liquid Glass for domestic use can only be purchased through direct marketing. A Liquid Glass party scene has already developed according to Schwindt, where people meet to promote their products; just like the famous Tupperware parties.

Nanopool says there are many applications for Liquid Glass, such as protecting ancient stone monuments from decay. Nanopool has partnered with four universities and 630 archaeologists conducting Ottoman excavations in Turkey.

Archeologists spraying Liquid Glass on Ottoman ruins
Archelogists use Liquid Glass to protect ancient treasuresImage: nanopool

Nanopool also works in close collaboration with many companies and local authorities, particularly in Turkey and Great Britain. For the Olympics in 2012, all of London’s traffic signs are to be treated with Liquid Glass in an attempt to combat graffiti.

Nanopool also alleges that crop yields could increase up to 60 percent by spraying Liquid Glass on seeds. Tests show that it does not only keep them from fungal attacks and vermin, but also accelerates the whole growing process.

Nanopool-founder Schwindt says he is pretty confident that Liquid Glass will soon modernize the world. "Within the next two to five years nothing will be produced without this technology."

Author: Noelle O'Brien-Coker

Editor: Mark Mattox