Hanover, NH —And he taketh away! Victor Petrenko, professor at Dartmouth College, has it in for ice. No more scraping in the driveway, defrosting the freezer, or de-icing at the airport. No more eco-enemy anti-freeze!
Ice has a charged surface—the opposite of whatever it "sticks" to—due to a unique collection of mobile protons. Petrenko found that those protons adhere to surfaces in a thin layer, which displays liquid-like properties. When a small electrical current is sent across a conductive surface covered in ice—like an airplane wing for example—electrolysis neutralizes the attraction and frees the protons, transforming the thin layer into hydrogen and oxygen. The trapped gases then break through to the surface, shedding the ice in the process. "The principal is similar to that of parallel plate capacitors," says Petrenko.
The charge could theoretically be applied to keep ice from forming in freezers, on automobile windshields, or on electrical lines. New England power companies like that idea since their last major ice storm in 1998 cost them about $5 billion dollars, mostly from damages. And everyone is pretty happy about not waiting in the de-icing line at the airport.
Commercial applications are years away, but prototypes are very promising, according to Petrenko. BF Goodrich (Charlotte, NC) has contracted to handle the aerospace and marine applications, while Torvec (Rochester, NY) has the rights to automotive uses.
However, de-frosting your freezer isn't even the most amazing part of Petrenko's discovery. He found that when a charge is applied to ice, its friction coefficient can be manipulated. "We modified the friction between conductive rubber and ice so drastically that it was actually greater than that of rubber on asphalt," says Petrenko. Imagine getting better traction in a skating rink than on a dry highway!