How poison dart frogs could de-ice airplane wings

Poison dart frogs can kill predators with super-toxic venom released through their skin. They can also inspire a system to keep airplane wings ice free.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

After seeing a poison dart frog like this one on vacation in Panama, an engineer devised a new way to de-ice planes. Wikimedia Commons/Quartl

Poison dart frogs are one of the most toxic species on Earth. So who would have thought these tiny, brilliantly colored amphibians could help save lives? Konrad Rykaczewski, that's who.

Rykaczewski, an assistant professor of engineering at Arizona State University, was inspired by the bad-ass dart frog to devise a new type of artificial anti-ice "skin" for airplane wings. His research, which was conducted with several colleagues, was included in the latest issue of Advanced Materials Interfaces, published this week.

In the same way that dart frogs hold their venom beneath their outer skin and release it when they're in trouble, Rykaczewski's skin has two layers. The bottom layer contains an antifreeze liquid, and the outer layer is made from a superhydrophobic material, which means it is crazy good at repelling water. The outer layer also has a series of pores in it through which the antifreeze can be released.

"When the surface starts icing over, e.g. due to frost, the pores fill up with condensate or ice and make contact with the antifreeze," Rykaczewski told CBS News. "Due to the contact, the antifreeze starts melting ice and diffusing. This is quite nice since in a way it is passive -- the release of antifreeze happens by itself and does not require any external input from an operator." Rykaczewski told CBS that for long flights, a syringe with a pump could feed the antifreeze layer as the liquid is used up.

In tests, the skin was able to delay the accumulation of freezing rain 60 times longer than a superhydrophobic coating alone, according to the YouTube video below posted by Rykaczewski. He also notes that the coating can resist ice buildup for an hour, while typical hydrophobic coatings can do so only for one minute.

Rykaczewski said it might be awhile before he can try his ice-resistant layers on an actual plane, but he hopes to give it a go an smaller structures like the blades of wind turbines in areas where they might ice up.