CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Imagine a world where buildings are coated in a material that turns slightly darker in the winter, absorbing sunlight to help warm the interior. Imagine that same material turning white during the summer to better reflect that same sunlight, keeping the interior cooler.
And while this coating is doing each of those things — turning darker and lighter, warming and cooling — it is simultaneously capturing portions of that solar energy to operate systems, further reducing the need for other costly energy sources.
It is this type of real research and development, not from a world of imagination, being conducted daily within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Paint Technology Technical Center of Expertise, or PTCx. Based in Champaign, Illinois, the Center is located within the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory.
The Center’s mission is to provide “paints and coatings subject matter expertise to ensure resilience and sustainability of infrastructure through innovative R&D and efficient field support.” It is a mission it accomplishes quite well, and one that is expanding both in size and importance.
“Much of the stuff we do falls under the mission of modernizing our nation’s infrastructure in the way of being able to use modern technology to provide better resistance, better sustainability and better resiliency against our really harsh climate, especially as the climate changes,” Dr. Rebekah Wilson, Director of Research and Development at PTCx, said. “Our corrosion rates are going up 1 percent each year, which means we are going to have a bigger challenge as the years go by. The technology we have now, that is working good enough, is not going to withstand that. Not only that, but our current technology, while it is working well, is not very environmentally friendly. So, we have been working hard, and will continue working, to try make those greener systems.”
Recently, Wilson and the Center’s experts have dealt with another global challenge, facing shortages and supply issues of the raw materials needed to protect valuable infrastructure components within USACE and the Armed Forces.
“Everyone is having material and supply issues, and when it comes to our coating systems, we are really seeing a huge hit,” she said. “The U.S. military alone spends more than $20 billion a year trying to mitigate corrosion of all our assets, and our coatings are our first line of defense against that.”
Wilson said the years of research in other materials and components has proved useful in quickly being able to select the next best option, whether that be coatings formulated and tested at the Center or coatings available commercially.
The ability to quickly assess a problem and provide solutions, sometimes within 24 hours, in conjunction with a world-class team of engineers and scientists, has made the Center a tremendous asset in USACE’s efforts to maintain and modernize infrastructure.
“Our research team has several different backgrounds. I am an analytical chemist, we have a geologist, we have mechanical engineers, material engineers, and baseline technicians that are former active military, which give us yet another unique background,” Wilson said. “When we all come together, we are tackling problems with our own background of expertise, really developing holistic types of R&D products.”
In conjunction with the expertise and experience, Wilson said the Center’s technology further elevates it as a global leader in paints and coatings.
“Being able to take a paint chip that is less than a couple of millimeters wide in each direction and put it under some really high-powered microscopy and pick it apart forensically would have been impossible in the field and could have taken months to get back from other types of labs,” she said.
Today, the PTCx is being called on to seek solutions to challenges and is looking ahead to the future of coatings and sensors in a way Wilson could not have imagined when she began working there in 2015.
“When I started here, our R&D program ran at about $300,000 a year; we had mostly civil works projects underneath corrosion prevention at our locks and dams. Over the past several years we have driven that up to a multimillion-dollar R&D program that spans military and civil works and is focused on more than just coatings, not just looking and formulating coatings, but surface preparation,” she said. “We just recently got a patent on new analytical techniques that will streamline coating performance technology, so it is really branching out the areas of what we are looking at. It’s not even corrosion, but looking at ways can do energy efficiency relations, smart sensing and concealment; we have really taken that portfolio and expanded it quite a bit.”
It is that expansion beyond corrosion prevention that excites Wilson, which takes us back to a world you may not have to imagine much longer, where the coatings on buildings and structures do far more than just protect from the elements.
“Most people think of coatings as something aesthetic, which is true to some extent, but coatings give you a platform to provide after-market technology or capabilities to latent surfaces. For instance, we are diving into being able to develop a solid solar cell coating that is clear,” Wilson said. “We can put it on buildings and use these large structures that already exist as harvesting for energy without having really large, dark solar panels that people typically see.
“I think that’s one of the bigger things people are less aware of,” she said. “There’s a lot of technology that can be imbedded within a coating that makes it a really good platform in a wide range of R&D areas.”