back to article To avoid that Titanic feeling, boffins create an unsinkable hydrophobic metal with laser power

Scientists have fashioned an unsinkable type of metal by etching the surface with lasers, creating an unusual “superhydrophobic” layer. The new research, published this week in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, was inspired by diving bell spiders and fire ant assemblies. Both types of creepy crawlies are able to travel …

  1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Should've got a couple of Discworld hydrophobes rather...

    1. Any other name

      Should've got a couple of Discworld hydrophobes rather...

      Those cost a fortune in the dehydrated water alone; using lasers is far cheaper.

  2. Tessier-Ashpool

    Hmmm...

    Won’t work for anything larger than a toy boat. Archimedes’ Principle still applies, and a thin skin of air won’t affect the buoyancy of a heavy object to any practical degree.

    1. KittenHuffer
      Coat

      Re: Hmmm...

      Well I guess that idea is sunk then!

    2. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Hmmm...

      Damn! That's burst my bubble, I was thinking of a pair of superhydrophobic shoes.

      1. pavel.petrman Bronze badge
        Coat

        Re: Hmmm...

        Jesus Christ, that would have been something!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Jesus Christ, that would have been something!

          it can still be something! Think millions of unsinkable flip-flops, as sold by Alibaba...

          btw, what's the total surface to sustain a human then?

      2. Muscleguy Silver badge

        Re: Hmmm...

        Goretex covered trainers are a thing you know. I had a pair and they worked, provided the puddles were not so deep the water could overtop them of course. But it changed the way you run in the wet compared to normal mesh covered shoes.

        I have worn the latter into one Dundee winter Sunday morning. -10C when I arose according the Met Office. It got noticeably colder as I left the built up area. As the cycle path doglegged across the drainage ditch it was flooded to mid ankle height.

        Normally cyclists broke the ice, but i seemed the only human out that morning. So I had to high step it to break the ice and felt the very cold water entering my shoes.

        However I was equipped with the wonder tech that is Hilly Twin Skin socks (no connection with the company). Before I’d gone 200m and while my shoes were still squelching my feet began to warm up again. 400m further and my feet were both dry and toasty.

        Never run long without double skin socks. Don’t run medium distance in the wet without them.

        1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

          Re: Hmmm...

          "run in the wet"

          Nope, not a chance, not happening, forget it, never going to happen, no.

          1. pavel.petrman Bronze badge

            Re: Hmmm...

            “Run”

            No. Never. Noooope. Nein!

        2. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: Goretex covered trainers are a thing you know

          "provided the puddles were not so deep the water could overtop them of course."

          Isn't there a Plimsoll Line printed on them so that you can tell?

    3. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: Hmmm...

      That and what happens with an oil slick? Quite often, the animals/plants with these types of skins, end up dead because they sink with/get stuck to oil spills. :(

    4. Terje

      Re: Hmmm...

      It may be interesting for small boats though if it prevents water from leaking in through small holes or cracks

    5. adam 40 Bronze badge

      Re: Hmmm...

      Let's say it did, and the keel was bouyant.

      It might not sink, but it wouldn't stay the right way up, either!

    6. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: Hmmm...

      You're right of course. Archimedes wins again. Damned Greek spoilsports. But I wonder what a surface coating of air bubbles does for or to drag. Any chance these laser teated metals might lead to more fuel efficient hulls or propellers?

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Hmmm...

        There are already ships out there that pump steams of air bubbles under the hull to reduce friction so that idea may well be a goer.

        1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge

          Re: Hmmm...

          There are already ships out there that pump steams of air bubbles under the hull to reduce friction...

          IIRC, the same principle is used with some torpedoes, so the militaries of the world probably will be interested.

    7. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Hmmm...

      "a thin skin of air "

      Is exactly what researchers have been aiming for in order to reduce ship friction and improve economy.

      I suspect there might be problems involved in continually having to laser-zap the paintwork though.

  3. the Jim bloke Silver badge
    Pirate

    Counter move

    The sharks will just have to reprogram their lasers to write "sinkiness" onto the hulls,

    While superhydrophobic is written with at the femto wavelengths,

    "sinkiness" is generally spelt as a series of large holes....

    ..where is my shark icon ?

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: Counter move

      1 million hull tanker is unsinkable!

      All 1 million hulls gets cracked open by the iceberg.

      "I knew we should have build 1 million and 1 hulls!"

  4. Chris 69

    Could this reduce friction?

    Maybe a reduction in fuel used for ships.... ?

    1. KittenHuffer
      Boffin

      Re: Could this reduce friction?

      Sorry, but the hydrophobic bits of the metal are actually on the two surfaces facing each other across a small gap. So, the metal is actually floating because it is 'trapping' a bubble of air between two pieces of metal.

      The hydrophobic surface is not on the outside, so it will not affect the friction between the ship and the water.

      1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Could this reduce friction?

        "The hydrophobic surface is not on the outside" but it could be. Specifically they could treat both sides with the laser.

        I would certainly be interested in seeing the results - I suspect it would work like shark/dolphin skin where it traps an ultra-thin layer of water,effectively making the whole thing super-smooth.

        1. Christoph Silver badge

          Re: Could this reduce friction?

          How long would this last in an actual marine environment, with all sorts of stuff growing on it?

          1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
            Trollface

            Re: Could this reduce friction?

            Depends how often you can sweep back with more lasers. In fact, forget the hydrophobia, just blast a plasma field in front of you through the water... shouldn't take more than a few terrawatts per meter of travel. ;)

            1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

              Re: Could this reduce friction?

              The article mentions corrosion rather than growth. The hydrophobic surface would probably resist barnacles too.

              1. Chris G Silver badge

                Re: Could this reduce friction?

                I have worked on a fair number of sailing and motor yachts, including doing the prep and application of anti foul, it doesn't matter which one you use, sometimes the little critters in the water just decide they like it and grow there.

                Barnacles and the like start life as microscopic organisms that would probably regard a microscopically laser roughed surface as an invitation to set up home.

                1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

                  Re: Could this reduce friction?

                  Yes, but they're aquatic organisms and the whole ide of this is to leave the surface dry. Would they even get a chance to settle there?

            2. quxinot Silver badge

              Re: Could this reduce friction?

              >Depends how often you can sweep back with more lasers. In fact, forget the hydrophobia, just blast a plasma field in front of you through the water... shouldn't take more than a few terrawatts per meter of travel. ;)

              That would (briefly, perhaps) also solve rising sea levels. Though we'd have dramatically more clouds in the sky.

        2. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge
          Terminator

          Re: Could this reduce friction?

          Ah, so that's why they need lasers.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But there’s a limit to how far that property can be pushed.

    I thought "rust?", but then I read the next sentence...

  6. PapaD

    Might be a while before a ship can use this technology

    But probably less time before it can be used for emergency floatation devices in some way.

    Brighter minds than me will no doubt have to explain exactly how.

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      Re: Might be a while before a ship can use this technology

      While it might help with the lead shoes... I don't think I'll be queing up for plated life jackets. ;)

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Probably, but I wouldn't mind a plated coat :)

        I' have to remember to not take it aboard though . . .

  7. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

    Cunning plan

    All we need to do is to fit this laser onto a plane. Or ship, but the US have got that old 747 for anti-missile testing.

    Then we shoot the lasers at all the Russian submarines, while they're in port. Hey presto! Their submarines permanently float.

    Oh sorry, didn't you want your boat to float? We thought we were being helpful...

    1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

      Re: Cunning plan

      Maybe they can bake this into the next Austin Powers movie.... Dr Evil threatens to floats all the navies of the worlds' submarines unless he's paid 4000 bitcoin (or something like that)

      muhuhahaha.

      A BOFH-type will find great uses for said laser... lining the insides of the Boss's coffee mug (for example)....

  8. Unicornpiss Silver badge
    Coat

    I'm not sure this will work on a large scale..

    ..but if scientists and engineers want to give it a go, then whatever floats their boats.

  9. devTrail Bronze badge

    Boxed double layer

    Shouldn't a boxed, sealed, surface with a frame inside creating many air pockets get the same result? When submerged it would even last more than 2 months.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Boxed double layer

      You could go further, and then remote the pieces of metal from your sealed box, and then it becomes just a flotation device.

      1. devTrail Bronze badge

        Re: Boxed double layer

        Sealed boxes are already quite common in small boats to keep them floating should they capsize. Mostly they are used in fiberglass boats where they are also part of the structure. But that's not my point, I pictured in my mind two layers with a small gap and a frame inside because it is a structure close to the surface full of holes, I wanted to understand where's the difference.

  10. Roger Kynaston
    Go

    antifoul

    A while ago a friend of my Brother's based in Ireland developed a nano etched surface that repelled weed. Given that all boats and ships have to paint their bottoms (snigger) with some sort of toxic paint to stop weed growing this might have an application there. seaweed wouldn't grow in air. I see that it is the inner surfaces of this that trap the air but with further development.

    I would love to not have to apply some evil toxic goop to my bottom!

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Devil

      Re: antifoul

      I would love to not have to apply some evil toxic goop to my bottom!

      Is that why so many ships have red bottoms...

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: antifoul

        The red colour is most likely so they're easier to spot when capsized.

        yes I spotted the joke :)

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: antifoul

          But seriously, is this red paint similar to the paint traditionally used on barns: iron-based to discourage things growing on them?

          1. adam 40 Bronze badge

            Re: antifoul

            No - antifoul paint contains tributyl tin.

            1. sbt Silver badge
              Pirate

              Copper bottomed

              I thought anti-foul traditionally contained copper. The ablative kind, anyway.

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: Copper bottomed

                It contains anything that the growies[0] find distasteful, often including various heavy metals. Some are more poisonous to humans than the chemical monstrosity that goes into pressure treated lumber.

                [0] "Growies" is a technical term; I'm sorry if such specialized jargon is over your head.

          2. Mike 16 Silver badge

            Re: antifoul

            --- the paint traditionally used on barns ---

            is/was traditionally made from milk and blood (at least in some cultures, IIRC) The interlinked proteins provided the binder, and red came from the iron in blood. Both substances can be commonly found near barns.

            1. Charles 9 Silver badge

              Re: antifoul

              So why the barn but not the farmhouse?

              1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

                Re: antifoul

                Maybe milk & blood is too smelly for a house?

            2. jake Silver badge

              Re: antifoul

              The red on barns isn't blood, it is red ochre, or hematite (Fe2O3). Other colo(u)rs are available, depending on location (us farmers are cheap bastards and will use whatever is local and plentiful). The colo(u)rant is mixed with a combination of lime, casein and water ("whitewash"). Milk can be substituted for the casein and water, thus the term "milk paint". A chemical reaction cures and "plasticizes" the mixture, creating a long-wearing surface. Note the present tense in this paragraph. We still do it this way.

              Blood sacrifices were made to dedicate new buildings in some cultures, true. But the blood wasn't used for paint to the best of my knowledge... in my case, it's more smeared in places after the barn in question bites me while I'm building it.

          3. Roger Kynaston
            Pint

            Re: antifoul

            No. Antifoul paint contains a cocktail of biocides in it. Most these days are based on copper but, back in the day, were based on tri-butyl tin (TBT) it was incredibly effective but also killed lots of other stuff and persists for a very long time. I have heard it said that you can follow the shipping lanes across the North Sea by following the areas bereft of life on the sea bed.

            My bottom is truly copper bottomed. It uses powdered metallic copper in an epoxy substrate. The copper oxidises to cuprous oxide which is the active ingredient. This then further decays to cupric oxide which ablates off to expose another layer of copper and so on. it has lasted ten years now but probably needs a new application now.

            Beer cos Friday but not too much as I am driving down to said boat tomorrow.

            1. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Re: antifoul

              "My bottom is truly copper bottomed."

              Whatever happened to the traditionalists - copper plated bottoms!

  11. jake Silver badge

    Eventually make an unsinkable boat? How about since 1958?

    "to eventually create unsinkable boats capable of staying afloat despite being damaged."

    I take it the Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York aren't old enough to have seen the Boston Whaler adverts ...

    Sometimes old tech is not merely adequate, it's actually better than proposed new tech.

  12. Sysgod

    Air is water

    So will helium bubbles cause an object to float into the sky?

  13. Big_Boomer Bronze badge

    Come and see my etchings <hehehe>

    The etching on the outside surface of the hull could reduce running friction of a hull, although it still has to push a lot of water out of the way. The anti-fouling effect would also help (Barnacles, etc. cannot attach to hull that has an air barrier covering it), as would not having to paint the hull with chemical nasties. Both could massively reduce the carbon emissions of shipping, so well done to the scientists working on this. Not taken on the flotation characteristics as it seems we already have flotation sorted, and have had since before records began.

  14. Nifty

    Could they coat mobile phones like this? Seriously.

  15. fredj

    Surely the trapped air will dissolve in the surrounding water and water will replace it? Is there more to this observation than I know? I have spent countless hours watching air bubbles in micro analytical systems.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019