PolyDrop: Student design project moves from innovative idea to industry impact

Story by Clare LaFond
Video by Conrado Tapado

Most flight safety concerns, at least for the average passenger – and especially for the nervous flyer – tend to focus on the plane’s condition or the pilots’ abilities. Is the aircraft properly maintained? Are the pilots experienced?

It’s doubtful many give much thought to the accumulation of electrostatic charge, otherwise known as static electricity, that’s generated during flight on the outer surfaces of planes and inside aircraft piping systems. Both aircraft and automobiles are electrostatic discharge sensitive (ESDS), meaning their surfaces tend toward a buildup of static electricity that can interfere with sensitive electronics. And that’s exactly what could lead to a disruption in flight communications or even a risk of fire or explosion in fuel areas or during refueling.

Enter UW start-up PolyDrop, whose researchers have invented one possible solution.

Developed in the lab of Lilo Danielle Pozzo, UW associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, PolyDrop addresses the ESD problem by providing a means to dissipate static electricity with a viable conductive technology. How? By manufacturing additives that transform regular coatings, such as paint, into conductive coatings that open up a world of opportunity for carbon fiber composites in the transportation industry. PolyDrop’s proprietary technology diffuses the electrostatic charge that accumulates from friction, and provides electromagnetic interference shielding for paints and other coatings used in the aerospace and automobile industries.

And, as transportation manufacturers move toward lighter-weight carbon fiber materials to reduce fuel consumption and decrease carbon dioxide emissions – materials that also accumulate a static charge — PolyDrop’s solution couldn’t be more timely.

By using nanostructured conductive polymers as additives, instead of traditional metallic additives, coatings containing PolyDrop’s polymers will have improved adhesion, a longer useful lifetime, and can be simply integrated into a production line.

What began as a senior design project for UW Chemical Engineering researchers Volha Hrechka and Greg Newbloom, soon turned an invention into a prototype with strong market potential. PolyDrop’s conductive coating is both tougher and more eco-friendly than alternative conductive coatings currently on the market. In 2013, the PolyDrop team won the $10,000 Grand Prize, sponsored by C4C, in the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge, an annual contest produced by the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship in partnership with the College of Engineering and the College of the Environment.

C4C also provided $50,000 in Commercialization Gap Funding and Hrechka with a Commercialization Fellowship that enabled her to work for PolyDrop full-time. Today, the PolyDrop team is scaling up processes to optimize the technology and move it out of the lab and into the marketplace. And they’re exploring a number of other potential applications for their technology as well: from anti-corrosion coatings and battery applications, to structural replacements for aircraft, such as additives to electronics panels and interior windows.

Hear the latest from Hrechka and Newbloom as they describe how a student design project took them from innovative idea to industry impact. Watch the video.