AD: Most people know Teflon as the nonstick coating that keeps their eggs from sticking to the pan. With your invention, what other uses could there be for Teflon?
KG: Thin layers of Teflon are very slippery. That means they can be used on the edges of razor blades for a smoother cut. Current manufacturers' coatings are thicker than they need to be. So, the razors are not as sharp as they could be. My process could make that coating sharper by a factor of 10 or more.
You could also use the polymer to coat textiles. The layers are so thin that you can't feel any difference in a fabric after it's been treated, yet the surface properties are quite different. You can pour water on a piece of cotton that's been treated, and the water doesn't wet the cotton at all.
AD: Where would one use this textile coating?
KG: Possibilities include outdoor wear that's stain repellent and very light. It could breathe. The Teflon coats the threads but doesn't block the pores or gaps between threads. This coating could be much more breathable than what exists now, because it doesn't form a solid barrier. It will be more breathable than Gore-Tex. Swimsuits could be coated to minimize drag.
AD: We tend to associate Teflon with the kitchen. Where else might this nano coating be used?
KG: Other major uses are chemical or biochemical applications, such as membranes used to separate particles like viruses or dust, leaving toxins behind. Since we can grow not only Teflon but also other types of polymers, we can tailor the membrane and change the pore size. By controlling for pore size, you can control what gets filtered.
AD: What do you envision down the road?
KG: The polymer could be used in microelectrical devices, such as the sensor in your car's air bag. They are very small devices that need very thin antistick coatings, because the parts stick together otherwise. This coating could also be used in construction. Coating a porous material like foam with this polymer makes it hydrophobic, so it won't absorb water. If the insulating foam in your walls were hydrophobic, maybe you wouldn't need to add Tyvek as a moisture barrier in new construction.
AD: How big a market could there be for this process?
KG: I don't know the numbers for that. But there are some fairly large consumer markets here, as far as the razors and the textiles. The question would be: What is the real value added? I'm leaving that to my friends at the start-up.
AD: How soon could this process be available to licensees?
KG: Within a year we hope to have a product on the market.
AD: Where are you now with the process?
KG: Right now, the process is being optimized for specific applications and properties. We're in final development phase of the manufacturing process.
AD: What needs to happen before the process is used to apply polymer coatings to new materials?
KG: For manufacturing, the final refinement and verification of all the properties. You make prototypes and put them through rigorous testing to ensure that you can achieve specific standards or milestones in terms of how long the object will be useful. Then you standardize the process.
Nine years ago, chemical engineer Karen Gleason dreamed up a solution that has kept her busy ever since: how to coat neuroprobes. These tiny devices that are implanted in the cortex to monitor abnormal brain function need a coating to insulate and separate their electronic circuitry from the brain's cells. Gleason wanted to coat the devices with a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) — better known as Teflon, a registered trademark of DuPont. PTFE, she knew, would make a good insulator for neuroprobes. But the substance comes in bulk form — powder, sheet or brick — rendering it impossible to use on something as tiny as a neuroprobe, which is thinner than a human hair.
Gleason's challenge was to create nano-Teflon. Her solution: Instead of coating the neuroprobe by spraying it or dipping it into a solution, she created the polymer molecule-by-molecule on the surface of the object. She did this through a process that grows the substance from a gas. Cotton treated with this coating is strong enough to withstand multiple washings without losing its waterproof quality. Gleason envisions future coatings as thin as 1/1,000 of the thickness of the coating on a frying pan.
Gleason was granted a patent for the technology she developed, and founded GVD Corp. in 2001 to commercialize it. American Demographics ' Sandra Yin recently checked in with her to learn more about the markets where nano-Teflon could be used.