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  • Jill Littlewood
    Enterprise Hardware R&D Making paper waterproof--and writable Published: August 9, 2005, 4:00 AM PDT By Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 9, 2005
      Enterprise Hardware >> R&D
      Making paper waterproof--and writable
      Published: August 9, 2005, 4:00 AM PDT
      By Michael Kanellos
      Staff Writer, CNET News.com

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      Sally Ramsey, founder of Ecology Coatings, jerry-rigged an apparatus in
      her lab to show a chemical company representative how rapidly one of
      Ecology's coatings dries when exposed to ultraviolet light.

      To avoid making a mess, she put a piece of paper underneath the object she
      wanted to spray.

      When cleaning up, Ramsey exposed the paper to UV light to dry it and make
      it easier to throw away. On a whim, she checked to see if the coating,
      which was enhanced with nanoparticles, made the paper impervious to
      pencils or ink.


      What's new:
      Nanotechnology start-up Ecology Coatings says it has developed a spray-on
      coating that, when properly dried, waterproofs materials--but still allows
      them to be written on.
      Bottom line:
      Ecology Coatings says it is talking with chemical companies about using
      the coating to waterproof a range of products, from address labels to
      sporting equipment to shoes.

      More stories on this topic
      "For a minute, I was really disappointed. I could write on it all over the
      place," she said. "Then something clicked."

      It turned out that the coating, in combination with the makeshift
      apparatus, made the paper waterproof without making it waxy, brittle or
      changing its other characteristics. The original piece of paper has been
      submerged in water since June 6. It hasn't dissolved and Ramsey's original
      writing is still on it. She once even took it out of the water, wrote on
      it some more, and submerged it again.

      "It was kind of a 'MacGyver-ish' sort of thing," she said, referring to
      the 1980s TV series about a scientifically resourceful secret agent. "It
      turns out also that the paper greatly slows down the growth of mildew."

      Although the process is in its infancy and the competition in industrial
      chemistry is fierce, Akron, Ohio-based Ecology believes the process could
      lead to shipping labels and tags impervious to the elements, eliminating
      the need for separate plastic coverings or for the somewhat expensive
      waterproof paper tags on the market today.

      But that's just a start, say Ramsey and Ecology CEO Rich Stromback, who
      are already talking to chemical giants about how to bring the material to
      market. They say the process can be used to spray a waterproof, writable
      surface on sleeping bags, sporting equipment, shoes, volleyball nets and
      other items.

      Potentially, the material could also get incorporated into building
      materials and compete against materials like Tyvek, the water- and
      puncture-resistant material that contractors and others gobble up by the
      square mile.

      "I've put it on canvas. I've put it on knit material. I've written with a
      Sharpie, with a pen, a pencil," said Ramsey. "The world is full of things
      you could put this on."

      Plastics, coatings and other industrial materials have emerged as the test
      beds for the nanotechnology industry. Early nanotech products include
      stain-resistant pants, golf balls that correct for a hook or a slice, car
      panels and lighter bike parts.

      What makes these nano-enhanced products superior to conventional products,
      advocates say, is that a sprinkling of atoms can serve to enhance a
      feature. Fewer atoms mean less weight and fewer alterations to the overall
      integrity of the final product. And instead of needing wires, a plastic
      part can conduct electricity by adding nearly invisible carbon nanotubes.

      "If you look at the nano success stories to date, they are all in
      composite materials and coatings," said Matthew Nordan, an analyst at Lux

      Although it only has two employees, Ecology has distinguished itself from
      the pack of nano start-ups to some degree by cutting licensing deals for
      its quick-drying, ultraviolet light-activated paint substitute with Red
      Spot, an automotive equipment specialist, and with DuPont.

      "There are innumerable nanotechnology companies that would kill to get the
      kind of validation these guys have gotten in a very short time," Nordan
      said. Still, the company faces major economic and technical challenges in
      moving its products from the lab to actual production, he warned.

      How it works
      What is the secret sauce behind the company's waterproof paper? Ecology is
      somewhat vague on that. The coating is a version of the company's
      UV-curable material. The lab apparatus affects the material in such as way
      that the coating actually permeates the paper, rather than just forming a
      layer on top, like a typical coating.

      "The apparatus sort of hurls it into the paper," said Ramsey. "It gives
      the drops some interesting momentum."

      Patents on the chemicals and the process are currently being sought.
      Nonetheless, Stromback added that the process will likely scale to mass
      production and not require unusual machinery.

      Previous Next "There's nothing that we see that is prohibitive in terms of
      the process," he said. "The technique can easily be put into place on
      existing paper production lines."

      Stromback added that industrial users may be able to incorporate the
      material into other products within 18 months to two years. Ecology
      doesn't engage in manufacturing on its own at the moment, but licenses
      ideas to established chemical concerns.

      Ideally, waterproof paper and labels produced by this process will be far
      cheaper than today's counterparts. Manufacturers today produce waterproof
      labels, but it requires embedding polypropylene fibers in paper. The
      process is expensive but also makes the paper waxy and tough. (Those
      rubbery parking tickets given out by some cities are made of such
      material.) Ecology claims its process will cost about 500 times less
      because ordinary paper can be used.

      Additionally, because paper manufacturers coat the paper they produce
      today, their chemical budget will stay roughly flat because they can
      substitute the new coating for the old one.

      Although the coating prevents mildew growth, Ramsey asserted that the
      material does not likely pose a health hazard. No toxic materials or
      fungicides were added. Mildew inhibition may come from the fact that the
      paper can't get moist.

      "This was a very happy accident," Ramsey said.

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