A microscope image showing how dust aggregates on the novel spiky surface. Image: The University of Texas at Austin/Smart Material Solutions.
A microscope image showing how dust aggregates on the novel spiky surface. Image: The University of Texas at Austin/Smart Material Solutions.

Dust is a common fact of life, and it's more than just a daily nuisance – it can get into machinery and equipment, causing loss of efficiency or breakdowns.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have now partnered with North Carolina-based company Smart Material Solutions Inc. to develop a new method for keeping dust from sticking to surfaces. The result is the ability to make many types of materials dust-resistant – from spacecraft to solar panels to household windows. The researchers report their work in a paper in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

"What we've demonstrated here is a surface that can clean itself," said Chih-Hao Chang, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and a lead author of the paper. “Particulates aren’t able to stick to the surface, so they come off using just the force of gravity.”

In tests, the researchers piled lunar dust on top of their engineered surfaces and then turned each surface on its side. They found that only about 2% of the engineered surface remained dusty, compared with more than 35% of a similarly smooth surface.

The researchers said their discovery boils down to things the human eye can't detect. In the experiments, the team altered the geometry of flat surfaces to create a tightly packed nanoscale network of pyramid-shaped structures. These sharp, angular structures make it difficult for dust particles to stick to the material; instead, the particles stick to one another and roll off the material via gravity.

These structures provide a passive solution, meaning they don't require any extra energy or materials to remove dust. Compare that with more active solutions such as a car windshield that requires the use of windshield wipers and wiper fluid to clean off dust.

The research was funded via a grant from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, so the first applications focus on space technology. Space dust is especially pesky because of how high-risk everything becomes in that environment, where the conditions make cleaning off dust challenging. Dust wreaked havoc on the Apollo missions and has caused Mars rovers to fail.

"There's not much you can do about lunar dust in space – it sticks to everything and there's no real way to wipe it off or spray it off," said Samuel Lee, a lead author who was an undergraduate researcher in Chang’s group. “Dust on solar panels of Mars rovers can cause them to fail.”

This technology could also have tremendous impact on Earth. For example, it could prevent solar panels from collecting dust and losing efficiency over time, as well as protect glass windows and someday even digital screens such as phones and TVs.

Anti-dust technology has been around for decades, but it has not gained much traction outside of the lab because of scaling challenges. However, the researchers utilized fabrication methods called nanocoining and nanoimprinting, which print patterns on objects in a modernized version of the way newspapers and photographs were mass produced during the 1800s.

This story is adapted from material from the University of Texas at Austin, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.