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Carles Colominas: "Functional surfaces drive us into the knowledge and added value economy"

07 julio 2017

Carles Colominas is Doctor in Chemistry and Industrial Engineer (IQS-URL, 1998), post-doctoral researcher (Stanford Research Institute, 1998-2000) and currently professor at the IQS School of Engineering (present). He is also director of the Laboratory of surfaces (GEMAT-IQS) and coordinator of the Master in Materials Science and Engineering at IQS School of Engineering at the Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona.

Carles Colominas is Doctor in Chemistry and Industrial Engineer (IQS-URL, 1998), post-doctoral researcher (Stanford Research Institute, 1998-2000) and currently professor at the IQS School of Engineering (present). He is also director of the Laboratory of surfaces (GEMAT-IQS) and coordinator of the Master in Materials Science and Engineering at IQS School of Engineering at the Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona. Mr. Colominas is co-founder and CEO of Flubetech CVD & PVD coatings, a company engaged in surface modification.

What is a functional surface?


When we think of any surface, features such as colour, texture or hardness come to mind. Functional surfaces, in addition to all this, have additional properties, for instance, they can be bioactive, antibacterial, hydrophobic, hydrophilic, non-stick, anti-icing, anti-condensation, and even have optical properties so that they can be perceived in distinct colours without the need to be painted. All this without forgetting the importance of protection against corrosion.
It is easy to paste cells or cell cultures on functional surfaces and this can be very useful for various medical applications such as knee replacements and dental implants, which are fixed to the bone. In those cases, it is important to accelerate the osseointegration.

Focusing on the functional surface properties mentioned first, what benefits would you highlight?


There are many. For instance, surfaces that prevent ice formation are vital for aviation because, if wings freeze, an aircraft manoeuvrability is harmed considerably and this could be a severe problem. But we could also mention the fact that the rear and side mirrors or the headlights of a car stay clean with no condensation at all, which is important for the safety of the vehicle. The breakthrough is that today we can give a specific texture to surfaces so that they behave in a precise manner in relation to different phenomena.

We are therefore talking about very different fields of application.


Yes, indeed, some are very interesting from the point of view of the industry and they will be seen in daily consumer products. I'm thinking for instance in the world of packaging. Imagine for example a packaging where a food like yoghurt don't stick at all at the sides. This would mean that all the food content would be consumed as it happens with water when we drink a glass. A very interesting aspect is that surface treatment can be done in many varied materials: plastic, glass, ceramics, etc. Naturally technique will vary in each case, but the general principle is always the same.

What fields are the most promising when speaking about functional surfaces?


Now the biomedical field is the one where the most important possibilities are open thanks to the fact that we are able to adhere specific medications to elements which are introduced into the body to treat heart disease or other conditions. In the same field, antibacterial treatments should be mentioned. Then, I would highlight optical properties that allow to give different colours to surfaces which I mentioned before. Moreover, there are surface treatments that can increase the hardness of certain tools.

What about the automotive world, apart from the mirrors and headlights?


Yes, there are more applications, particularly in the case of electric cars where due to limited battery duration we want to move less weight to save energy. That is related to the hardness of the tools that I mentioned a moment ago. These lighter cars are made of certain compounds that have to be manufactured with tools treated superficially with diamond. Therefore, a material change in the automotive industry implies a change of tools and the introduction of specific surface treatments. The hardness of tools is the key.

Functional surfaces have been invented at a certain point in time or are they the result of a progressive research?


They are the result of ongoing research in this area for some years. Some examples of functional surfaces can be found for more than a couple of decades. But since the year 2000 they have gained more prominence and since then we have begun to see that we have an entire world to explore regarding additional properties. There are two main ways of intervention. One is adding different materials to a surface to achieve the changes we want. The other is to change the very shape and texture of the surface in a nanometric scale.

What can be obtained with nanotechnology?


For instance, we can reproduce artificially the surface texture of the petals of a flower that is very hydrophobic so that the droplets slide without wetting the surface. Nanotechnology allows us to add functional layers to surfaces to get properties. We are talking about layers that are thousandths of a micron and a micron is a thousandth of a millimetre. These are very advanced techniques that we are still learning to apply. Nanotechnology is also used to change the morphology and texturing surfaces.

Is Nature a good model for progressing in this area?


Nature is very wise. Natural selection over millions of years has come to very intelligent solutions. In this sense, copying Nature is like copying someone who has been working for a very long period of time. It is also true that research and theoretical models allow to visualize things that do not still exist but maybe someday someone will can achieve new extraordinary properties.

This whole series of techniques and possibilities, to what extent are part of the world of research and to what extent are they already applied in real industrial processes?


Now they are largely in research and only a few can be found in products. In any case, there are companies that make self-cleaning windows that use just rainwater for cleaning. There are also optical products that change the direction of light or provide colour without painting among other benefits. And I mentioned earlier there are advances in the biomedical and packaging fields. I would underline that there are still few applications of functional surfaces when compared with the volume of research being carried out. In fact, we are just beginning.

Would you mind making a general prediction on the arrival of more functional surfaces to the market?


There are some applications that will take years to see the light on the market while others will come faster. I think that textured surfaces at nanometric level will reach the market in 10 years in products such as consumer electronics. Regarding large biomedical applications beyond what we have now maybe we are talking about 20 or 25 years.

Do you think the world of industry will have to adapt to these changes?


Yes, because a change in many manufacturing models will be necessary. The Industry will have to look how to reduce the cost of these new processes that now are still significantly high. But I just think companies will be very attentive to these new technologies and they will incorporate them gradually until they become common processes.

You work precisely at Gemat IQS to give answers to the industry.


Yes, Gemat is the group of materials engineering at IQS, in Barcelona, and indeed this is one of our main goals. We have basic research and applied research that address the real problems and challenges of the industry. Mainly, Gemat is divided into four research areas. First there is a powerful line of development of biomaterials, where of surfaces modification plays a key role. Second, we work on nanostructured hard coatings for industrial applications, especially carbon-based materials such as DLC (Diamond Like Carbon). Finally, we are doing research on nanotexturing of injected plastics and in the synthesis and use of graphene in several areas.

How do you see Eurosurfas?


Eurosurfas has a long history and has had a very industrial approach in let's say more "classic". Areas. I think it would be good for the future to move towards disruptive applications like the ones explained in this interview. These applications have a lot of knowledge behind and therefore they have added value. These two elements are those that allow a company to move forward with strength. Our country must seriously commit to the knowledge economy.

Image Credit IQS

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