Accidental Innovation: Scientists Create Ultralight Structural Color Paint

    The world of science and innovation never ceases to amaze us. Traditionally, paint has been made using a bonding agent such as oil and pigments from heavy metals such as cobalt, ochre, and cadmium to create a range of colors. However, in nature, there are creatures like butterflies and beetles that exhibit vibrant colors without the use of pigment, but rather through topography. Scientists at the University of Central Florida have now discovered a “first-of-a-kind” paint that mimics the structural coloring found in nature.

    By taking a closer look at the submicroscopic ridges and contours on a peacock feather, scientists were able to understand how these creatures created iridescent blues and greens without using any pigment. This natural coloring, known as structural color, has now been successfully replicated using a unique process that involves growing aluminum nanoislands on a double-sided mirror, dissolving them into a fine dust and mixing it with binders to make paint.

    What’s more, this new paint is so light that only a very thin coat is needed to cover a surface, making it incredibly useful in the airline industry. By using this paint on planes, researchers estimate that they could save more than 997 pounds of weight, resulting in significant fuel savings. This breakthrough discovery could have a major impact on a variety of industries, from aviation to automotive, where weight reduction is crucial for both efficiency and performance.

    The aviation industry is always looking for ways to improve fuel efficiency, given that it is already the single biggest operating expense, accounting for about 30 percent of costs. Airlines are constantly exploring innovative solutions to reduce weight and increase efficiency. For instance, American Airlines estimated that it saved $1.2 million annually by removing only 67 pounds of pilot manuals from its planes, and another 300,000 gallons of fuel in 2021 by using a lighter paint that shed 62 pounds from its 737s.

    One of the most significant advantages of the new structural color paint is its durability. Planes are usually repainted up to four times a year due to the sun’s oxidation effects, which causes the paint to fade. Structural colors, however, do not fade in the sun, and thus require less frequent repainting, only when a change of color is desired.

    Another key property of the paint is its ability to keep surfaces cooler. Most planes are painted white to reflect as much light as possible, but absorbed infrared radiation becomes trapped, making the interior warmer. Preliminary tests on the team’s colorant show that it can keep surface temperatures 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than traditional paint, regardless of the color. This property makes the paint ideal for painting planes, cars, houses, and other buildings, as it can reduce energy consumption required for air conditioning.

    Despite these promising results, the researchers are facing the challenge of scalability. While they have the equipment to make small vials, they would have to produce much larger quantities to commercialize the paint realistically. The lab is currently seeking commercial partners to help bring the paint to market and make it accessible to industries worldwide. The potential savings in fuel, weight, and energy make this new paint an exciting prospect for aviation and other industries alike.

    It is amazing to think that a discovery that began with an annoying problem with aluminum clumping together could lead to such an incredible breakthrough. Science and innovation continue to push boundaries and open up new possibilities, making our world a more colorful and exciting place.


    author avatar
    Ajinkya Nair




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