The research could lead to a new class of non-stick materials for a range of applications, including improved-efficiency power plants, speedier boats, and surfaces that are resistant to contamination by germs.
Non-stick surfaces are usually created by applying coatings, such as Teflon, to smooth surfaces. But recently, by taking the lead from observations in nature, notably the lotus leaf and some varieties of insects, scientists have realized that a bit of texture can help.
By incorporating topographical features on surfaces, they’ve created extremely water repellant materials.
In the latest application of nanotechnology, researchers have created a slippery surface that has “superhydrophobicity,” which is a fancy term for being extremely water repellant.
The non-stick surface was created by pock-marking a surface with tiny nano-cavities, creating a textured surface where air bubbles get trapped. This reduces the area of water in contact with a solid surface, and results in water forming droplets that easily roll off of surfaces. This occurs naturally in nature among the lotus leaf and certain varieties of insects.
As you can see in the image below from Brookhaven National Laboratory News, what makes this super slippery surface so unique is that is was created on a nanoscale level. The air bubbles are only about 10 nanometers in size, which is 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
The new non-stick material is already being targeted for its potential to make more efficient power plants, faster boats and germ-resistant surfaces.
On face value, this new material seems to be far safer than Teflon and similar non-stick coatings currently in use. However, nanotechnology does present unique risks of its own.
Is Nanotechnology Safe?
Nanotechnology refers to the study and design of systems at the scale of the atom, or the nanoscale. At the most basic level, the manufacturing is actually the rearranging of individual molecules and atoms into complex "molecular machines."
One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, which is a measure so small it’s absolutely useless as a reference point. To get some idea of just how small these particles are, consider that a human blood cell is 8,000 nanometers, and a human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide.
On one level, nanoparticles are an incredible advance of technology. For instance, in the supplement industry, nanotechnology can shrink the size of vitamin molecules down to microscopic nanodroplets that are much easier for your body to absorb.
On the other hand, nanoparticles are so small that that they can easily be inhaled or absorbed through your skin, so great care needs to be taken as to what types of particles are being produced on the nano-scale.
For instance, nanosilver, which is being touted as the latest miracle fighter in the war against germs, has already been added into hundreds of consumer products from clothing to washing machines. However, already mutations in fish have been detected from exposure to these particles.
I’m typically a major advocate of technology, but I have mixed feelings about the use of nanotechnology, particularly when it comes to exposing your body to these complex molecules (see, for example, the results of a study on brain-damaging sunscreens).
If harnessed properly, nanotechnology has the potential to make major strides in conventional medicine and other areas related to your health, but if it falls into irresponsible hands the results could be devastating.
Please understand that I do not believe this is a “dangerous” nanotechnology, as it is a fixed material that is not consumed -- only used as a tool to prepare food -- so as such would pose no risk to you or your family.
Are You Still Using Non-Stick Cookware?
For the time-being, most people are primarily interested in advances in slippery surfaces as they relate to cookware. About 70 percent of cookware sold in the United States contains a non-stick coating that makes cleanup a breeze.
But like so many products developed for the sake of convenience without concern for human health, Teflon-coated cookware has proven to be a primary source of dangerous perfluorinated chemicals (PFOAs).
In animal studies, PFOA posed health hazards like:
Serious changes in organs including the brain, prostate, liver, thymus, and kidneys, showing toxicity.
Death of several rat pups due to PFOA exposure.
Changes in the pituitary in female rats, at all doses. The pituitary controls growth, reproduction, and many metabolic functions. Changes in the size of the pituitary indicate toxicity.
PFOA has been associated with tumors in at least four different organs in animal tests, and has been implicated in an increase in prostate cancer in PFOA plant workers.
Teflon pans quickly reach temperatures that cause the non-stick coating to begin breaking down, releasing toxins into the air in your kitchen.
When your Teflon pot or pan reaches 680 degrees F (which takes about three to five minutes of heating), at least six toxic gases are released. At 1,000 degrees F, the coatings on your cookware break down into a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB.
So much for that healthy home-cooked meal!
I highly recommend you throw away this type of non-stick cookware immediately and replace it with either ceramic or glass. My personal choice is ceramic cookware, because it’s very durable and easy to clean, and there’s absolutely no risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.
While our current ceramic cookware is not non-stick, this summer we will be introducing a completely PFOA-free, safe non-stick metal frying pan made out of zirconium. It’s very high tech, completely safe and absolutely amazing, so keep an eye out for this announcement in a few months’ time.