Engineering Professor Investigates Commercial Potential of 'Lotus Effect' Research With NSF Award

October 20, 2011

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

October 20, 2011 — The "lotus effect" allows the leaves of the lotus plant to repel water and remain clean. University of Virginia engineering professor Mool Gupta is researching how such a property could be harnessed to improve several processes, including the capture of solar energy and removal of ice from aircraft.

The project, for which he is the lead investigator, is among 21 selected for the inaugural class of National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, or "I-Corps," awards.

Gupta is the Langley Distinguished Professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of U.Va.'s Center for Lasers and Plasmas, part of the NSF's Industry and University Cooperative Research Program. His research involves laser material interactions and applications, solar energy and optical sensors.

His project, "Replication of Laser-Generated Surface Textures for Anti-Icing and Sunlight-Trapping Applications," involves laser micro-texturing of surfaces and low-cost replication to provide superhydrophobic properties similar to the lotus effect.

"Superhydrophobic" refers to surfaces that are very difficult to wet, such as the waxy leaves of the lotus plant. Gupta and his team aim to create a low-cost, micro-textured surface that can be used over large areas.

"These surfaces have many applications," Gupta said. "Because water droplets roll down quickly from micro-textured surfaces, ice formation can be eliminated. Anti-icing surfaces have applications for commercial and military airplanes, communication towers, protection of blades in wind energy generation, bridges, roofs, ships, refrigeration – in fact, this technology is applicable wherever ice buildup is a problem."

Micro-textured surfaces also trap solar light efficiently, allowing the possibility of enhancing solar-cell efficiency, he said. 

"This award will allow our research team to learn about entrepreneurship by attending an NSF-sponsored workshop at Stanford University and exploring the commercial feasibility of our research," Gupta said.

The other project members are Paul Caffrey, a doctoral candidate under Gupta's supervision, and Martin Skelly of Charleston, S.C., a veteran of banking in the former Soviet Union who serves as business mentor and is actively involved in new business investments.

"Mool's work is innovative and has lasting impact on society," Engineering School Dean James H. Aylor said. "I look forward to seeing what develops from participation in NSF's I-Corps."

Spanning a broad range of target products, geographic locales and research fields, the 21 teams in the inaugural class will receive guidance from private- and public-sector experts, participate in a specially designed training curriculum at Stanford and receive $50,000 to begin assessing the commercial readiness of their technology concepts.

The team has already attended a three-day entrepreneurship workshop at Stanford led by instructors who are highly successful entrepreneurs in California's Silicon Valley and authors of several books.

"I-Corps has generated tremendous excitement," I-Corps program officer Errol Arkilic said. "Our first round of awards emerged from a wide array of fields and strong fundamental research efforts. All show promise as potential innovations that could yield additional direct benefits to society."

In total, the awards were representative of six NSF directorates: Engineering; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Biology; Mathematics and Physical Sciences; Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences; and Education and Human Resources. Institutions that received the awards include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Southern California, Carnegie-Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, Georgia Tech Research Corporation and the University of California, Davis, among others.

For information, visit the NSF website.

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