U-M Spinoff HygraTek Strives to Build a Better Coating

When Anish Tuteja was first pondering the technology that would eventually form the backbone of HygraTek, a University of Michigan spinout, he considered the humble cooking pan.

Tuteja was doing post-doctoral work at MIT at the time, and he noticed that water will bead on a pan, but oil spreads. He started thinking about how he might create a better coating that could repel oil and other materials as easily as water.

“Initially, I tried to figure out how to stop oil from spreading, and how to make [the coating] more durable,” he says.

Today, Tuteja is HygraTek’s chief technical officer. His startup company has an office in U-M’s Venture Accelerator in the Office of Technology Transfer, where the company is moving feverishly toward getting its coating to market.

HygraTek’s coating is not only hydrophobic, meaning it repels water, but it’s also omniphobic, meaning it repels just about anything, including ice, snow, bird droppings, and dust. It even repels acid and alcohol. To create the patent-pending coating, HygraTek takes a polymer solution and applies an electric field to it. By manipulating the concentration of the polymer solution, the company can affect how the solution breaks up into microscopic droplets. Then, the droplets cover the surface and can coat any material.

A key application for HygraTek’s coating is solar panels, where—especially in climates like Michigan’s—ice and snow on the surface can hamper a solar panel’s output.

“It’s extremely important from an energy perspective,” says Kausik Mukhopadhyay, HygraTek’s vice president of operations. “Ice reduces efficiency. Dust and bird droppings are also a problem. These are the practical issues people face, and, right now, no solutions exist.”

Attempting to clean ice or other gunk off solar panels risks scratching them, Mukhopadhyay says, and one scratched panel can mean an expensive replacement of an entire bank of panels. “Our coating not only repels water and snow, but we also had to make it very stable and durable so it won’t get scratched over time,” he adds.

Tuteja says the coating he’s invented can also be applied to other surfaces, like fabrics. “We take a very different approach than, say, Scotchgard. Ours is a very thin coating that goes onto every fiber—it’s flexible, transparent, and still porous. We think it will transform the entire industry.”

That’s a bold claim. What’s the business model of a startup that believes it’s sitting on such a transformational product? Tuteja says his goal is to build relationships with companies who would want to incorporate HygraTek’s coating into existing products.

“It can be applied to different verticals, whether it’s energy, electronics, the auto industry, clothing, or carpets,” he points out. “The goal is to never sell the coating directly, but to form partnerships.”

Much of Tuteja’s research has been funded by the military, which is interested in applying HygraTek’s coating to ships to reduce drag and corrosion, or to keep ice off aircraft and drones.

Tuteja says there are already a number of companies “very excited” about the work HygraTek is doing, but he believes a market-ready product is still about a year away. “It’s very cheap to produce, but we want to make sure our coating will last,” he says.

Once HygraTek’s coating is tested and on the market, the company will get to work perfecting its second invention: a new process to separate oil and water that can be used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has come under fire by environmental activists for the amount of pollution it causes.

Tuteja calls it a huge problem, and one the company will soon devote more energy to. “We’re much closer to establishing partnerships on coatings,” he adds. “Oil and water separation is farther out. Those systems are more complicated.”

Trending on Xconomy