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Sticky Research Is Focus Of Centennial Celebration
January 2006

While many of us think we have no aptitude for chemistry, polymers and coatings, we come in contact with it every day. When we take an aspirin for a headache, it often contains a coating to make it easier to swallow. When you have a can of soda pop, the inside of the can carries a special coating. Those new eyeglasses you bought? Check out the anti-glare coating on them. Don’t forget the clear-coat you paid for on your car to protect its paint job or the tinted windows on your vehicle. The chips in your computer contain coatings, too. Coatings are encountered so often in everyday life that they may be taken for granted. But that’s not the case at North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND (NDSU). Its world renown Department of Coatings & Polymeric Materials has been making sure the right things stick to surfaces for 100 years.

In the early 1900s, paints were a “wild west” sort of business. Many were unregulated and sometimes dangerous concoctions and you didn’t always get what you paid for. In 1905, the North Dakota Legislature enacted a law to prevent deception in paints. The new law required the ability to test the paint, and NDSU came forward under the leadership of Professor E. F. Ladd to lead the way. NDSU offered the first coatings course in 1905 and a test fence was set up in an NDSU field in 1906 to study paint durability for the first time. NDSU is now one of only six universities in the country offering a program in coatings. The department offers master’s and doctorate level programs, as well as a minor for undergraduates. Graduates of the department are currently empolyed in a variety of settings, from paint companies to industry to cosmetics. Polymers and coatings are a $50 billion industry worldwide and serve to both decorate and protect property.

They also are of major interest to the U.S. Department of Defense, where the cost of corrosion to military equipment and infrastructure is estimated to be between $10 billion and $20 billion annually, according to a report to Congress. NDSU got involved in Air Force coatings research in 1996, after receiving a $2 million competitive grant from the Department of Defense. Since then, U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan has worked to ensure the program receives supplementary grants, totaling $7 million to date. Research includes non-toxic aluminum primer for airplanes, anti-fouling and fouling-release silicones for ships and durable hybrid coatings for aircraft systems.

Such research has led to some “Eureka” moments, according to Gordon Bierwagen, Ph.D., and chair of NDSU’s Department of Coatings & Polymeric Materials. Dr. Bierwagen recalls a flash of inspiration that was tempered by reservations in 2000. He was considering the use of magnesium in anti-corrosion coatings for the Air Force’s aluminum aircraft bodies. Yet he couldn’t ignore magnesium’s volatile reputation. It was possible the highly reactive metal–used in everything from the original flashbulbs to fireworks–wasn’t safe to handle as a pigment for coatings. “When I first mentioned it to somebody,” says Dr. Bierwagen, he said, ‘Nah, you’ll blow yourself up.’ As it turns out, extensive research experiments showed it wasn’t as hazardous as first thought and work continues by the research team to find answers to complex coatings questions. It’s just another part of the 100 years of discovery and innovation at NDSU’s Department of Coatings & Polymeric Materials.

NDSU’s research in coatings and polymeric materials may also affect works of art that you view in museums. Researchers at NDSU are developing the first-of-its-kind protective coating for outdoor bronze sculptures that provides protection equal to that of clear-coats on automobiles, yet is removable.

In a project with the Getty Conservation Institute of Los Angeles and the Tate Gallery of London, NDSU conducts research involving conservation of modern art. While oil painting conservation is understood, latex paint conservation is not. Modern artists used latex house paint on large canvases and other non-artist paints to create their artwork. Even modern art is now old enough to require repair. NDSU’s coatings and polymeric materials researchers look for answers to help preserve artistic works.

Internationally known for its excellent educational and research programs, the department has developed close partnerships with industry and government agencies. Included among the research underway is one plan to develop microscale sensors that could warn maintenance crews when an aircraft is developing corrosion. “That will be one of the next big things for us,” says Dr. Bierwagen.

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