There was a big airplane accident years ago where the chief pilot had failed to de-ice the wings just before take off. The plane took off from Dulles Airport (Washington, DC) and crashed minutes later killing the crew and passengers (if memory serves, everyone died).
I read the story in a book about sociolinguistics and work. When the ‘black box’ (a recorder that’s in all airplanes) was recovered, sociolinguists were included in the team that was tasked with trying to establish the cause(s). From the sociolinguists’ perspective, it came down to this. The chief pilot hadn’t flown from Washington, DC very often and was unaware that icing could be as prevalent there as it is more northern airports. He did de-ice the wings but the plane did not take off in its assigned time slot (busy airport). After several minutes and just prior to takeoff, the chief pilot’s second-in-command who was more familiar with Washington’s weather conditions gently suggested de-icing wings a second time and was ignored. (They reproduced some of the dialogue in the text I was reading.) The story made quite an impact on me since I’m very familiar with the phenomenon (confession: I’ve been on both sides of the equation) of comments in the workplace being ignored, although not with such devastating consequences. Predictably, the sociolinguists suggested changing the crew’s communication habits (always a good idea) but it never occurred to them (or to me at the time of reading the text) that technology might help provide an answer.
A Japanese research team (Riho Kamada, Chuo University; Katsuaki Morita, The University of Tokyo; Koji Okamoto, The University of Tokyo; Akihito Aoki, Kanagawa Institute of Technology; Shigeo Kimura, Kanagawa Institute of Technology; Hirotaka Sakaue, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency [JAXA]) presented an anti-icing (or de-icing) solution for airplanes at the 65th Annual Meeting of the APS* Division of Fluid Dynamics, November 18–20, 2012 in San Diego, California, from the Nov. 16, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,
To help planes fly safely through cold, wet, and icy conditions, a team of Japanese scientists has developed a new super water-repellent surface that can prevent ice from forming in these harsh atmospheric conditions. Unlike current inflight anti-icing techniques, the researchers envision applying this new anti-icing method to an entire aircraft like a coat of paint.
As airplanes fly through clouds of super-cooled water droplets, areas around the nose, the leading edges of the wings, and the engine cones experience low airflow, says Hirotaka Sakaue, a researcher in the fluid dynamics group at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This enables water droplets to contact the aircraft and form an icy layer. If ice builds up on the wings it can change the way air flows over them, hindering control and potentially making the airplane stall. Other members of the research team are with the University of Tokyo, the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, and Chuo University.
Current anti-icing techniques include diverting hot air from the engines to the wings, preventing ice from forming in the first place, and inflatable membranes known as pneumatic boots, which crack ice off the leading edge of an aircraft’s wings. The super-hydrophobic, or water repelling, coating being developed by Sakaue, Katsuaki Morita – a graduate student at the University of Tokyo – and their colleagues works differently, by preventing the water from sticking to the airplane’s surface in the first place.
The researchers developed a coating containing microscopic particles of a Teflon-based material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which reduces the energy needed to detach a drop of water from a surface. “If this energy is small, the droplet is easy to remove,” says Sakaue. “In other words, it’s repelled,” he adds.
The PTFE microscale particles created a rough surface, and the rougher it is, on a microscopic scale, the less energy it takes to detach water from that surface. The researchers varied the size of the PTFE particles in their coatings, from 5 to 30 micrometers, in order to find the most water-repellant size. By measuring the contact angle – the angle between the coating and the drop of water – they could determine how well a surface repelled water.
While this work isn’t occurring at the nanoscale, I thought I’d make an exception due to my interest in the subject.
*APS is the American Physical Society