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Americas: MIT commercializes coating to reduce wastage

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MIT has licensed nonstick coating LiquiGlide to Norwegian consumer-goods producer Orkla to use the LiquiGlide’s coating for mayonnaise products sold in Germany, Scandinavia, and several other European nations.

Developed in 2009 by MIT’s Kripa Varanasi and David Smith, LiquiGlide is a liquid-impregnated coating that acts as a slippery barrier between a surface and a viscous liquid.

Applied inside a condiment bottle, for instance, the coating clings permanently to its sides, while allowing the condiment to glide off completely, with no residue.

In 2012, amidst a flurry of media attention following LiquiGlide’s entry in MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, Smith and Varanasi founded the startup — with help from the Institute — to commercialize the coating.

This comes on the heels of another licensing deal, with Elmer’s, announced in March.

The startup, which just entered the consumer-goods market, is courting deals with numerous producers of foods, beauty supplies, and household products.

Apart from providing savings and convenience, LiquiGlide aims to reduce the surprising amount of wasted products — especially food — that stick to container sides and get tossed.

For instance, in 2009 Consumer Reports found that up to 15% of bottled condiments are ultimately thrown away.

Keeping bottles clean, Varanasi adds, could also drastically cut the use of water and energy, as well as the costs associated with rinsing bottles before recycling.

Varanasi says LiquiGlide aims next to tackle buildup in oil and gas pipelines, which can cause corrosion and clogs that reduce flow.

Future uses, he adds, could include coatings for medical devices such as catheters, deicing roofs and airplane wings, and improving manufacturing and process efficiency.

Liquid-impregnated surfaces

LiquiGlide was originally developed while Smith worked on his graduate research in Varanasi’s research group.

Smith and Varanasi were interested in preventing ice buildup on airplane surfaces and methane hydrate buildup in oil and gas pipelines.

Some initial work was on superhydrophobic surfaces, which trap pockets of air and naturally repel water.

But both researchers found that these surfaces do not shed every bit of liquid.

During phase transitions — when vapor turns to liquid, for instance — water droplets condense within microscopic gaps on surfaces, and steadily accumulate.

This leads to loss of anti-icing properties of the surface.

“Something that is nonwetting to macroscopic drops does not remain nonwetting for microscopic drops,” Varanasi says.

Inspired by the work of researcher David Quéré, of ESPCI in Paris, on slippery ‘hemisolid-hemiliquid’ surfaces, Varanasi and Smith invented permanently wet ‘liquid-impregnated surfaces’ — coatings that do not have such microscopic gaps.

The coatings consist of textured solid material that traps a liquid lubricant through capillary and intermolecular forces.

The coating wicks through the textured solid surface, clinging permanently under the product, allowing the product to slide off the surface easily; other materials cannot enter the gaps or displace the coating.

“One can say that it’s a self-lubricating surface,” Varanasi says.

Mixing and matching the materials, however, is a complicated process, Varanasi says.

Liquid components of the coating, for instance, must be compatible with the chemical and physical properties of the sticky product, and generally immiscible.

The solid material must form a textured structure while adhering to the container.

And the coating cannot spoil the contents: Foodstuffs, for instance, require safe, edible materials, such as plants and insoluble fibers.

To help choose ingredients, Smith and Varanasi developed the basic scientific principles and algorithms that calculate how the liquid and solid coating materials, and the product, as well as the geometry of the surface structures will all interact to find the optimal “recipe.”

Today, LiquiGlide develops coatings for clients and licenses the recipes to them.

Included are instructions that detail the materials, equipment, and process required to create and apply the coating for their specific needs.

“The state of the coating we end up with depends entirely on the properties of the product you want to slide over the surface,” says Smith, now LiquiGlide’s CEO.

Having researched materials for hundreds of different viscous liquids over the years — from peanut butter to crude oil to blood — LiquiGlide also has a database of optimal ingredients for its algorithms to pull from when customizing recipes.

“Given any new product you want LiquiGlide for, we can zero in on a solution that meets all requirements necessary,” Varanasi says.

From lab to market

For years, Smith and Varanasi toyed around with commercial applications for LiquiGlide.

But in 2012, with help from MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, LiquiGlide went from lab to market in a matter of months.

Initially the idea was to bring coatings to the oil and gas industry. But one day, in early 2012, Varanasi saw his wife struggling to pour honey from its container.

“And I thought, ‘We have a solution for that,’” Varanasi says.

The focus then became consumer packaging.

Smith and Varanasi took the idea through several entrepreneurship classes — such as 6.933 (Entrepreneurship in Engineering: The Founder’s Journey) — and MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service and Innovation Teams, where student teams research the commercial potential of MIT technologies.

“I did pretty much every last thing you could do,” Smith says.

“Because we have such a brilliant network here at MIT, I thought I should take advantage of it.”

That May, Smith, Varanasi, and several MIT students entered LiquiGlide in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, earning the Audience Choice Award — and the national spotlight. A video of ketchup sliding out of a LiquiGlide-coated bottle went viral.

Numerous media outlets picked up the story, while hundreds of companies reached out to Varanasi to buy the coating.

That summer, Smith and Varanasi took their startup idea to MIT’s Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator program, which introduced them to a robust network of local investors and helped them build a solid business plan.

Soon after, they raised money from family and friends, and won US$100,000 at the MassChallenge Entrepreneurship Competition.

When LiquiGlide Inc. launched in August 2012, clients were already knocking down the door.

The startup chose a select number to pay for the development and testing of the coating for its products.

Within a year, LiquiGlide was cash-flow positive, and had grown from three to 18 employees in its current Cambridge headquarters.

Story by Rob Matheson, MIT News Office