Virginia Tech researchers work on quicker defrosting method

It's an idea that could save travelers time.

By Erin Brookshier - Virginia Today Reporter

BLACKSBURG, Va. - While many of us are looking for ways to stay cool this summer, researchers at Virginia Tech are looking at ways to heat things up.

They're working on a system called dynamic defrosting that would defrost surfaces 10 times faster than normal. It's an idea that could save travelers winter weather headaches at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport by cutting down the time it takes to defrost a plane to just a few minutes.

The concept behind dynamic defrosting is simple. A premade solution would be put on the surface of the airplane, which would trap millions of tiny air pockets underneath the frost and ice that forms on the wings. With just a little heat applied to the coated surface, all of the ice breaks down to slush and quickly slides off.

Professor Jonathan Boreyko says the concept of suspended water is not exactly new. Scientist have known for more than a decade that dew droplets can basically float on the surface like this. But the impact of forming the air pocket underneath frost is just beginning to be studied. It's a process that could save us time and potentially help save the environment as well.

"It actually takes thousands of liters of anti-freeze chemicals to de-ice airplane wings," he says. "So if we could have a mechanism to have this dynamic defrosting work on airplanes where you can just heat up the wings a little and the frost could just roll or fall off, that would be a long-term promising alternative to how we use all of the chemicals for de-icing airplanes."

It's an idea Boreyko says came to him one morning when he was sitting in his own car during a cold Blacksburg winter, waiting for his windshield to defrost.

So far, most of the testing has been on aluminum. Researchers are working to expand their studies, focusing on other surfaces as well.

"It's increasing the durability so people don't have to apply the treatment as often," says Kevin Murphy, a VT PhD candidate who is working on the study. "That's the next step in making it more practical. Taking it out of the laboratory and into the real world."

Some real world uses include heat pump outside of our homes. Instead of having to waste electricity by running them in high-efficiency mode or getting out scraping the ice off by hand, this dynamic defrosting process could keep the ice melting off all winter long.

Another popular use is for people who just don't want to be cold during the winter.

"People who are too lazy to scrape their own ice off their window, I just want to sit in their car and wait. They will have a 10-time reduction in how long it takes to melt that frost off," says Boreyko.

Eventually, these researchers hope to make the dynamic to frosting system usable on additional surfaces, making it a household product we rely on.

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