MIT's Micron-Sized Quest for the Ice-Proof Airplane

Deicing. It's more than just something that delays your flight as the airport searches for that missing truck—it keeps your plane from falling like a stone too! MIT scientists want to help with the delay part. Enter ice-proof planes.

Working at the molecular level, the MIT folks are attempting to understand how frost forms on airplane wings and other surfaces, and what kinds of designs or materials might be able to slow or eliminate the process altogether without the use of potentially toxic chemicals or heating coils (which require additional energy beyond normal airplane functions).

The first idea, a super-hydrophobic coating (think exponentially more effective Rain-X on your windshield), was met with frosty ineffectiveness and in some cases made the ice form faster.

MIT's Micron-Sized Quest for the Ice-Proof Airplane

Frost, you see, had no problem forming on super-hydrophobic surfaces. Worse still, once forst forms it actually nullifies the water-propelling characteristics that make super-hydrophobic applications so effective at defeating water build-up. In low pressure, super saturated atmosphere, say 30,000 feet in the air, frost "readily forms" on super-hydrophobic surfaces. Positively loves it. Frosty goodness everywhere, with lift-defeating ice soon to follow.

That said, the research did indicate that a textured surface, combined with super-hydrophobic coatings, could be an effective defense against ice formation. Could be. The research has yet to bear this hypothesis out completely, and researchers are still clamoring to create the ideal texture and pattern. Beyond ice-fighting, the surface must also be cheap enough to manufacture cheaply, en masse.

"That will be the real breakthrough," said MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi in an interview with the MIT News Office. "Scalable manufacturing techniques, with material that can survive in these kinds of applications."

So far he knows that micron-sized textures are ineffective. Failure is welcomed in science, however, and Varansai is undeterred. Indeed, he described the failure as "an important result in the field since it possibly tells us where not to look."

Future experiments will evaluate larger parameters and scales. "Icephobic" materials that defeat frost formation at the microscopic level could be flying you home to see grandma for the holiday season before you know it. [MIT]