Water Drops on Leaves Inspire Wind Turbine Coatings That De-Ice Themselves

nasturtium leaf water droplets photo

photo: Kyknoord< /> via flickr.

There's lots of cool stuff going on with biomimicry these days and on Wednesday I got to see one of the coolest things I've seen in this arena in a while: Experimental superhydrophobic coatings for wind turbine blades. Inspired by the way water balls up on certain types of leaves, these promise more efficient renewable energy, safer airplanes, and more:My sneak peak into superhydrophobia came thanks to GE's largesse, as they ferried myself and several other reporters up to their Global Research Facility in Niskayuna, New York to take part in a media forum on their investments in cleantech startups.

Which was all financially fine and good (check out Marc Gunther's take on it over at Fortune Brainstorm Tech) but it was the lab itself that was probably of most interest to TreeHugger readers.

What you're looking at above is water bouncing off a piece of superhydrophobic nano-material. It does this because, as GE's Advanced Technology Program Leader for Nanotechnology, Margaret Blohm, explained to us, the surface structure of the material is such that the when the water droplet hits it, the surface tension isn't disrupted and it bounces, rather than splats.

The inspiration for this came originally from observations of lotus leaves which exhibit similar characteristics. Nasturtium leaves (pictured at top) behave in the same way. In nature this serves, essentially, to enhance photosynthesis as dirt has a harder time collecting on the leaves -- it just gets continually washed off by dew and rainwater.

ge harsh environment test facility photo

Joe Vinciqerra, Mechanical Engineer and GE's Icephobic Coating Project Leader standing in the middle of testing equipment which simulates cold temperatures and high wind speeds. Photo: GRC Blog.

But for wind turbines -- and this is what GE will be testing shortly using Southwest Windpower's residential-scale wind turbines -- the idea is to use these superhydrophobic coatings to reduce icing and improve efficiency. If the ice never really has a chance to form on the blade as its rotating, then it never has a chance to increase drag on the blade.

This obviously also has potential application in aircraft engines and wings: As Joe Vinciquerra says in the GRC Blog,

For aircraft engines flying at 30,000 feet, engineering solutions are used to prevent icing, but they typically cost significant engine efficiency. But what if we could place special nano-coatings on a wind blade or on aircraft engine parts that could repel water? And what if these coatings also could repel ice? If we could eliminate the need for expensive, energy intensive systems to prevent icing, we could realize a big improvement in efficiency.

More info: GRC Blog: Creating anti-icing surfaces
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