February 16, 2016

"Swiss army knife" molecule

The coating polymer is versatile – like a Swiss army knife. (Photo: Colourbox.de)

(February 16, 2016)  Scientists at ETH Zurich and an ETH spin-off have developed a novel polymer for coating materials, in order to prevent biofilms from forming on their surfaces. Thanks to the technological platform developed, it is now possible to coat durably a variety of different materials using the same polymeric molecule. Such coatings are of relevance for medical applications, among others.

Internal and external qualities are two different things – the same holds true in materials science. For example, in many cases a specific material would, in principle, be ideal for a technical application were it not for the fact that its surface is unsuitable.

Materials scientists solve this problem by coating the material. Coatings can be used to make a surface lubricious, for example, or – in underwater applications or the biomedical sector – to prevent algae, proteins or bacteria from fouling the surface over time. For example, hydrophilic polymers are often used to protect metals from fouling; water molecules accumulate on this polymer layer, which protects the metal against the adhesion of unwanted molecules or organisms. However, many coatings currently in use are not very resistant to environmental factors, since they are often connected to the material by only a weak electrostatic bond. Other existing, more resistant coatings are expensive to use and sometimes require toxic solvents.

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