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Durham University

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Smartphone 'dunking protection' technology shortlisted for award

(1 September 2016)

How liquid-repellent technology is changing our lives

Research that allows smartphones to be waterproofed so effectively that they can survive being dropped in the bath has led to Durham University being shortlisted for a major industry award.

A research group led by Professor Jas Pal Badyal FRS developed liquid-repelling nanocoatings that have been applied to more than 100 million smartphones, 75 per cent of the world’s hearing aids and three million pairs of footwear.

The research has led to the University being shortlisted in the Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology category of the Times Higher Education Awards 2016.

The University has also been shortlisted in two other categories – Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community and Outstanding Employer Engagement Initiative (Business School). The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London in November 2016.

Low energy

The development of the nanocoatings at Durham has solved a major problem for industry. High performance coatings for waterproofing have been used for a number of years on consumer electronics goods, such as mobile devices, but most suffer from poor durability.

The challenge for this industry was to create ultra-thin, super-repellent surfaces for a variety of materials on a commercial scale without using solvents and with low energy consumption.

Professor Badyal, of the Department of Chemistry, has pioneered surface treatment technologies that use very low amounts of material, minimising environmental impact compared to conventional processes.

A thin, nanoscale, coating is produced on a surface by reacting a simpler chemical in the presence of a plasma, resulting in surfaces with the desired properties.

Professor Badyal worked with his PhD student Stephen Coulson to achieve highly liquid repellent protection on a range of materials including plastics and fabrics. The result is a quick, single-step process that is selective, cheap, and low energy.

The research has been commercialised by UK-based start-up company P2i Ltd, which has subsidiaries in China, Singapore and the USA. Mobile phones, footwear and hearing aids are treated under the Aridion™ brand, while 100 million laboratory pipette tips have been treated under the Ion Mask™ brand.

Another start-up company, Dow Corning Plasma Solution Ltd, has developed the technology for the £2 billion global market for antibacterial surfaces.

Global impact

Professor Badyal, who is a Fellow of the Royal Society, is also interested in the application of his research to help those living in poverty and has adapted the technology to help collect fog for clean drinking water in developing countries. 

The global impact of the research was judged to be the highest of any chemistry project case study entered for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, the official measure of research strength in UK universities.

Speaking about the shortlisting, Professor Badyal said: “I am honoured to be shortlisted for this award. It is very exciting for a scientist to see a laboratory invention be adapted for so many uses that are beneficial to society. The wide range of novel surfaces we invented has not only improved consumer goods but has reduced damage to the environment and promises to help people in developing countries.”

The Times Higher Education Awards ceremony will take place on 24 November 2016 at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane, London. 

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