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Spiky hedgehog particles could reduce VOC emissions from paints and coatings

University of Michigan researchers have developed a new process that can sprout microscopic spikes on nearly any type of particle and that may lead to more environmentally friendly paints and a variety of other innovations. The “hedgehog particles” are named for their bushy appearance under the microscope. Their development is detailed in a study published in Nature.

A different strategy for modulating the interaction between a solid and a liquid uses surface corrugation, which gives rise to unique wetting behaviour. Here we show that this topographical effect can also be used to disperse particles in a wide range of solvents without recourse to chemicals to camouflage the particles’ surfaces: we produce micrometre-sized particles that are coated with stiff, nanoscale spikes and exhibit long-term colloidal stability in both hydrophilic and hydrophobic media. We find that these ‘hedgehog’ particles do not interpenetrate each other with their spikes, which markedly decreases the contact area between the particles and, therefore, the attractive forces between them. The trapping of air in aqueous dispersions, solvent autoionization at highly developed interfaces, and long-range electrostatic repulsion in organic media also contribute to the colloidal stability of our particles.

—Bahng et al.

The unusual behavior of the hedgehog particles came as something of a surprise to the research team, says Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering.

We thought we’d made a mistake. We saw these particles that are supposed to hate water dispersing in it and we thought maybe the particles weren’t hydrophobic, or maybe there was a chemical layer that was enabling them to disperse. But we double-checked everything and found that, in fact, these particles defy the conventional chemical wisdom that we all learned in high school.

—Nicholas Kotov

One of the first applications for the particles is likely to be in paints and coatings, where toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as toluene are now used to dissolve pigment. Pigments made from hedgehog particles could potentially be dissolved in nontoxic carriers such as water, the researchers say.

This would result in fewer VOC emissions from paints and coatings, which the EPA estimates at more than eight million tons per year in the United States alone. VOCs can cause a variety of respiratory and other ailments and also contribute to smog and climate change. Reducing their use has become a priority for the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bodies worldwide.

VOC solvents are toxic, they’re flammable, they’re expensive to handle and dispose of safely. So if you can avoid using them, there’s a significant cost savings in addition to environmental benefits.

—Nicholas Kotov

While some low- and no-VOC coatings are already available, Kotov says hedgehog particles could provide a simpler, more versatile and less expensive way to manufacture them.

For the study, the team created hedgehog particles by growing zinc oxide spikes on polystyrene microbeads. The researchers say that a key advantage of the process is its flexibility; it can be performed on virtually any type of particle, and makers can vary the number and size of the spikes by adjusting the amount of time the particles sit in various solutions while the protrusions are growing. They can also make the spikes out of materials other than zinc oxide.

The researchers say the process is also easily scalable, enabling hedgehog particles to be created “by the bucketful,” according to Kotov. Further down the road, Kotov envisions a variety of other applications, including better oil dispersants that could aid in the cleanup of oil spills and better ways to deliver non-water-soluble prescription medications.

The study is based upon work partially supported by the Center for Solar and Thermal Energy Conversion, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Support has also been provided by the NSF and the US Department of Defense.


  • Joong Hwan Bahng, Bongjun Yeom, Yichun Wang, Siu On Tung, J. Damon Hoff & Nicholas Kotov (2015) “Anomalous Dispersions of Hedgehog Particles” Nature 517, 596–599 doi: 10.1038/nature14092


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