Engineers from Harvard University have designed and demonstrated ice-free nanostructured materials that literally repel water droplets before they even have the chance to freeze.

The finding, reported online in ACS Nano on Nov. 9, could lead to a new way to keep airplane wings, buildings, power lines, and even entire highways free of ice during the worst winter weather. Moreover, integrating anti-ice technology right into a material is more efficient and sustainable than conventional solutions like chemical sprays, salt, and heating.

A team led by Joanna Aizenberg, Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a core member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, focused on preventing rather than fighting ice buildup.

“We wanted to take a completely different tact and design materials that inherently prevent ice formation by repelling the water droplets,” says Aizenberg. “From past studies, we also realized that the formation of ice is not a static event. The crucial approach was to investigate the entire dynamic process of how droplets impact and freeze on a supercooled surface.”

In comparison with traditional ice prevention or removal methods like salting or heating, the nanostructured materials approach is efficient, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly. Further, when chemicals are used to de-ice a plane, for example, they can be washed away into the environment and their disposal must be carefully monitored. Similarly, salt on roads can lead to corrosion and run-off problems in local water sources.

The researchers anticipate that with their improved understanding of the ice forming process, a new type of coating integrated directly into a variety of materials could soon be developed and commercialized.