Slugs Might Save Your Plane From Icy Wings

Air Force One undergoes a deicing procedure at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C. One day, this could be a thing of the past, thanks to SLUGs. Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images

Someday, deicing trucks may no longer be a fixture on airport runways during snowy, icy weather. That's because slugs might be employed to deice the aircraft instead. Not those dark, slimy-looking, shell-less mollusks that can wreak havoc in your garden, but self-lubricating organogels, SLUGs for short.

Japanese scientists discussed their innovative work on SLUGs technology yesterday at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific group. The new SLUGs product the researchers created can adhere to surfaces such as an airplane's wing. When temperatures drop, the organic gel (organogel) coating secretes a slick substance that makes the surface it's on so slippery that ice won't adhere to it. When temperatures rise, the lubricating material slides back into the organogel coating.

The research team came up with the idea behind SLUGs technology after observing real slugs, which secrete a watery mucus that coats their skin and repels dirt. This coating allows them to crawl around in the earth without one speck of dirt clinging to their bodies. The scientists realized the mollusks' coating is similar to a scientific process called syneresis, which is the expulsion of liquid from a gel.

A slug nibbles on a flower in a garden in Kempten, Germany. A slug's coat inspired this new deicing agent.
Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/Corbis

Here's how SLUGs technology works: A liquid-repellent substance and gel are mixed into a silicone resin. The compound is then cured, resulting in a nearly transparent gel that can be applied to surfaces as a solid film coating.

Research director Atsushi Hozumi, Ph.D. says via email that the team is currently studying whether SLUGs can help traffic signals placed in snowy areas such as Hokkaido, Japan. "Recently,  conventional signals [there] have been replaced with LED types to save energy," he explains. "But [in the winter] they become completely covered with ice and snow, resulting in serious problems for drivers. We are testing our samples outside in Hokkaido, and are getting good experimental results."

Other potential uses for SLUGs, say researchers, are as antifouling coatings used in packaging, paints, ship bottoms and metal molds to keep barnacles, algae and other marine life away. And, of course, SLUGs could be used on aircraft to where remove snow and ice from the wings and tail of a plane. An aircraft's wings and tail are created with a precise shape that allows it to lift into flight. When snow or ice cling to these surfaces, the shape is changed; this, in turn, alters the airflow of the surfaces and can hinder the plane's ability to rise into the sky.

Hozumi said he hoped to use SLUGs' potential use as a deicing agent for aircraft is definitely possible, but the product will require further development to be suitable to withstand the harsh weather conditions airplanes undergo. So for now, they're working on deicing coating for traffic lights and solar panels in snowy countries.

"Our experimental data — under specific experimental conditions — shows [SLUGs] is best among the various anti-icing surfaces in the world at present," he says.