A Place for Packaging Innovators

In 2009 Consumer Reports performed a series of tests that showed that a good portion of what we buy never makes it out of the container and instead ends up in the trash can. The tests showed that up to 25% of skin lotion, 16% of laundry detergent and 15% of condiments, such as mustard and ketchup, end up getting thrown away. So what if there was a true non-stick surface that allowed for all contents of a container to be used? What other industrial uses might be possible for such a non-stick technology?

A True, Zero-waste, Non-stick Solution

Seemingly defying physics, a true non-stick technology has now been developed. In answer to an entrepreneurial contest at MIT, coupled with provocation from a professor’s wife asking for a more efficient bottle of honey, a new company, LiquiGlide, has been born. Started by MIT mechanical engineering professor Kripa K. Varanasi, and his graduate student, J. David Smith, they have developed a coating for the insides of bottles that creates a “permanently wet and slippery surface.” Yet, before we go further, take a moment to see this technology in action:

A toothpaste demonstration: standard bottle on the left, LiquiGlide bottle on the right

Video Courtesy: Liquiglide

The company announced on Monday that it had signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Elmber’s Products Inc. for the use of its coatings in glue containers. Anthony Spath, associate manager for innovation and business development at Elmer’s said,

“We certainly see a chance for a competitive advantage.”

LiquiGlide has also signed a licensing deal to a packaging company in Australia where the idea is to make the inside surface of paint can lids slippery such that paint won’t stick there. The company noted that paint drying on the inside lid causes several issues, including waste, as well as dried bits that end up as bumps on the wall or clog paint spraying equipment. There could also be major environmental payoffs through the reduction of waste. Professor Varanasi’s grad student turned CEO of LiquiGlide stated, “we expect it to be ubiquitous (in a few years).”

Viscosity, Viscosity!

Pouring water from a bottle is easy…and almost 100% efficient. Water has a very low viscosity rating, which means it has a very low propensity to get hung up or stick. On the near reverse end of the scale is something like the toothpaste shown above, which is highly viscous, and requires far more than gravity to get it flowing. The scale of viscosity is presented below:
Image Courtesy: Nature.com
Toothpaste is the type of material that scientists term a “Bingham plastic,” a highly viscous material that does not flow without a strong push. Of course, toothpaste is not a plastic…it just has the properties that fit the term named after chemist Eugene Bingham, who described the mathematical properties associated with such highly viscous materials.

In yet another example, with a LiguiGlide surface applied inside a mayonnaise bottle, the results are truly impressive. Take a look:

A mayonnaise demonstration: standard bottle on the left, LiquiGlide bottle on the right

Video Courtesy: Liquiglide.com

Visions Well Beyond Food

Dr. Varanasi’s vision for the many possible applications for LiquiGlide go well beyond food and into several industrial applications. For example, LiquiGlide could be used to allow for far more efficient pumping of crude oil, or for the placement onto airplane wings to prevent ice buildup. As you get the mind going, the number of applications are truly astounding. The potential impacts in safety, efficiency, performance and more, across multiple industries and commercial applications, seem pretty obvious. To be sure, LiquiGlide has its eyes on several of these avenues, having just picked up $7m in a VC funding round.

Applications for LiquiGlide beyond food include many industrial and commercial applications, including the reduction of ice build-up on airplane wings.

Image Courtesy: PilotGateways.com
With 20 employees, LiquiGlide just moved into a larger office and laboratory space, and is actively exploring new, industrial applications, including coatings for petroleum storage tanks and pipelines. Such an application could not only create better oil transfer efficiency (reducing the amount of energy needed to transport oil), it could also speed up the cleaning of the pipes and oil tanks…allowing for fewer chemicals to be used in the process. Speed, efficiency, positive environmental impacts, it is a positive, upward spiral.

See in the example below how crude oil slips off of a LiquiGlide-treated sheet. Imagine this application in a pipeline:

Video Courtesy: Liquiglide.com

The founders of LiquiGlide have said that a mayonnaise bottle could be coming this year or early next year. Easier-to-squeeze toothpaste may be coming in 2017. “There are significant savings from a sustainability perspective,” Dr. Varanasi said.

With what we’re seeing here, it seems that Liquiglide could be the answer to our “high-viscosity” prayers…at least, we’ll be watching to see if this new technology “sticks” around.

Click here to Read about the history of non-stick surfaces, going back 3,000 years...

A Brief History of Non-stick Surfaces

The history of non-stick surfaces goes back to the Mycenaean Greeks, who might have used “non-stick” pans to make bread more than 3,000 years ago. Mycenaean ceramic griddles had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes. The bread was probably placed on the side with the holes, since the dough tended to stick when cooked on the smooth side of the pan. The holes seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread quite evenly over the griddle.

Roy Plunkett, the inventor of Teflon (PTFE)

Image Courtesy: Hagley Museum and Library
In 1938, what would later be called Teflon (PTFE) was invented by Roy Plunkett, while working for a joint venture of the DuPont company. The substance was found to have several unique properties, including very good corrosion resistance and the lowest coefficient of friction of any substance yet manufactured. PTFE was used first to make seals resistant to the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the Manhattan Project during World War II and was regarded as a military secret. Dupont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944 and soon began planning for post-war commercial use of the new product. By the mid 1950’s we started seeing the use of Teflon in cookware…we still see carnations of Teflon today.
Such advents in cooking technology have been groundbreaking and have provided one of the very best ways to keep food from cooking onto one of your pans, making them very difficult to clean. Of course, even such non-stick surfaces wear out, begin to flake, and have even been linked to health hazards. Such surfaces are not truly “non-stick” and degrade in performance over time.

AUTHOR: Dan Meyers