Getting commercial

Inchgarvie, Firth of Forth

Most of the science I do is pure research, research that does not make money. But last week my colleague at Surrey, Joe Keddie, and I went to the kick off meeting of a consortium called Barrier-Plus. It is an EU funded consortium of a bunch of SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), the Universities of Lyon and Surrey, and the Paint Research Association. Basically it is funded by EU (taxpayers’) money to fund research mostly by Lyon and us to address research problems the SMEs can’t solve themselves. It’ll run for 3 years, and Joe and I are currently hiring two postdocs (i.e., scientists trained to PhD level) to do the work at Surrey (applications still open of you’re interested …). The kick-off meeting was at the Paint Research Association in Hampton Court, west London.

The meeting was quite good fun. A lot of it was getting to know each other. After a good English breakfast we walked as a group from the hotel on the banks from the Thames to the Paint Research Association. I was chatting with a guy from a company based in Bolton. We made some jokes about the house prices. A brief check of property web sites shows that in Hampton Court 2-bedroom terraced houses (for example), start at £995,000, while in Bolton it is more like £40,000. Just incredible. It is hard to believe Bolton and Hampton Court are in the same country.

But back to the science. The objective is to make better, more corrosion resistant and more eco-friendly, coatings for steel. These are used to rust-proof stuff like the steel of the Firth of Forth bridge (picture up top). The scientific problem is that there is direct conflict being eco-friendly and being water resistant. To be eco-friendly, the coatings have to be water not oil based. By oil based I mean that the polymers that will make the coating are suspended in oil to make them a liquid paint. Making good coatings or paints based on oil is easy but then the oils are bad for human health, bad for the environment, and highly flammable.

But there is a kind-of obvious problem with making water-based waterproof coatings.

You want a coating where the polymers that will protect the metal when it is dry are in a water solution, so they must be water soluble. But after a couple of hours drying they need to be waterproof, and then waterproof for 10 + years ideally. Making a waterproof coating from water-soluble ingredients is as tricky as it sounds. But then if it was easy there would be no need for us. I am looking forward to working on this over the next couple of years. And the next meeting is in Lyon, so that’ll be nice.

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