Waste-free paint reduces pollution in car manufacturing

Exhaust emissions from cars are a toxic nightmare for the planet, but vehicles start polluting even before they hit the road.

Applying solvent-based spray paint to vehicles represents after exhaust fumes the second-biggest environmental hazard associated with cars. A quarter of the paint solids end up in landfill, while the solvents are released as volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. It is a scenario that is bad for the environment and our health.

The problem is that wet spray paint does not transfer well on to plastic; in fact, only about 35 per cent of it sticks to the surface. Enter Dr Wojciech Gutowski (pictured here), the Chief Research Scientist at the CSIRO, who has developed a revolutionary eco-technology that eliminates the need to use harmful and costly wet paint.

His breakthrough improves the ‘stickability’ of electrostatic powder coating. The technology uses solvent-free resin that allows powder coatings, paints and inks to better adhere to plastics.

For his research in the field of interfacial interactions of sealants, adhesives and coatings, Dr Gutowski has won the 2011 Eureka Prize for Commercialisation of Innovation.

The prize is part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the most prestigious awards in Australian science. The winners were announced last night at a star-studded evening for the country’s most inspired minds.

‘The Eurekas’, as they are fondly known, have become the most coveted science awards in this country. Every scientist knows a ‘eureka’ moment comes after decades of singular dedication, deep inquiry and rich collaboration. Receiving an Australian Museum Eureka Prize is regarded as a pinnacle achievement for any Australian scientist.

"Professor Gutowski has developed the first true zero-waste coating technologies that completely eliminate solid and liquid waste, volatile organic chemicals and the use of water in a range of industries that need to powder-coat products," says Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum. "This goes well beyond car production and has the potential to transform manufacturing industries that make painted plastic components for cars, aircraft, furniture and buildings."

Already in use in the automotive industry in Australia and overseas, the technology can be applied for coating of exterior and interior components of a vehicle. The estimated saving to the Australian industry alone courtesy of the substitution of wet paints is about $100 million per year.

The technology is based on engineering an interface on the surface of non-conductive material, such as plastic, to drastically increase its surface conductivity and enhance coating adhesion. This lets plastics have the same transfer efficiencies as metal when using electrostatic powder-coating.

The end result is 100 per cent transfer efficiency (no waste) of a solvent-less coating (not harmful to human health or the environment) with excellent adhesion (it stays on).

Surface modification technologies developed by Professor Gutowski can be used with polymers, composites, ceramics and organic materials such as wood and natural fibres. His technologies are presently being employed by major international companies such as General Motors, Ford and Boeing.

Professor Gutowski is one of the CSIRO’s most prolific inventors and actively engages with industry to bring his science to market.