Interview conducted by Will Soutter
Stephen Coulson, CTO of P2i, talks to AZoNano about the benefits of using liquid repellent coatings across a wide range of applications, especially mass produced electronic devices.
WS: To begin with, could you please give us a brief overview of P2i's technology, and how it was developed?
SC: The technology originated from a project back in the late nineties in Durham University sponsored by the UK Ministry of Defence. The original goal was to maximize the level of water and oil repellency in chemical warfare suits, while providing the desired level of breathability.
It’s very easy to overprotect somebody from a chemical challenge, but this can increase the physiological load to a point where the wearer can’t carry out everyday activities.
So we wanted to take standard air-permeable military clothing, and allow it to provide a higher level of protection against liquid threats (most chemical agents like mustard and nerve agents are often referred to as gases, but are in fact liquids with a substantial vapour pressure).
During the research, our “eureka” moment, if you like, was the discovery of a treatment for a swatch of fabric that made it repel these extremely low surface tension oils. The low surface tension means that there’s not much energy holding them together, so they just spread out very easily. But because of the low surface energy of our coating, the liquid actually stayed as droplets. Typically our coating gives a surface energy a third that of PTFE (Teflon®), which is the benchmark for liquid repellency.
WS: How did you become involved in nanocoating technology?
SC: When I was selecting my research project for my PhD in Chemistry, I chose to work with a professor who was focused on doing work which had a direct use, and real commercial value. That was really interesting to me – to take the technology from the laboratory scale, and be able to turn it into a product that people will see benefit from.
WS: How was P2i formed, and where does the name come from?
SC: P2i originally stood for Porton Plasma Innovations, but has since been morphed into Perform, Protect and Improve, which are the three key features that we provide with our technology.
After the technology was proven in the academic environment, we patented it, and moved into the Ministry of Defence, where we worked on adapting the technology for specific military requirements - mainly for protective clothing against chemicals.
Within about a year and a half, we developed a fabric with the required abrasion resistance and washability. But then, because the MoD is non-manufacturing, there was no way to take that capability and deliver it to the soldier in the field.
One typical vehicle to achieving that is a spinout company - fortunately for us, in 1999 there was a government white paper called the Baker Report, which basically said that all public sector research establishments should commercially exploit their intellectual property, because this income would alleviate the burden on the tax payer.
So we spun the company out in January 2004, after having a lot of venture capital interest – one particular interest group called Porton Capital, based in Dubai, invested in the technology, and they’ve supported us for the last ten years.
WS: What makes P2i’s technology unique compared to other liquid repellent coatings?
SC: The key thing about P2i which differentiated our approach from other companies working with similar technology, was that we saw the most value, not in the equipment that delivered the technology, but in the functional effect that the technology provided. You don’t value your microwave oven as a microwave generator; you value it because it heats up food for you.
So rather than aiming to sell a piece of equipment for a margin, our approach was to make the equipment low cost, as a low barrier to entry, but then to charge per product processed. We are very much focused on being a solution provider, rather than a manufacturer.
And we also were in the unique position of having invented the technology and developed it ourselves. A lot of companies will license in technology, so they don’t necessarily fully understand it to the degree you need to when you put it into mass manufacturing. Because to really make any money out of it, it’s not about, coating one or two items - it’s about doing hundreds of thousands of products per day, and having a high level of repeatability and reliability in that treatment.
So I think those things really differentiate us from anybody else who is operating in a similar space, but is actually taking quite a different approach.
We have found that we have a great deal of competition – particularly since we launched with Motorola and the Droid Razr, lots of companies have appeared from nowhere claiming to provide liquid repellency. The problem we’ve seen is that it’s very easy to make an impressive YouTube video demonstration, but not so easy to take the technology to mass production.
You can do it yourself – if you drip candlewax on the inside of a phone, it will survive a dunk, but there’s no way you could do that on hundreds of thousands of phones a day. I think the fact that we are the only company with commercial traction on that level shows that the competing technologies out there just aren’t scalable to that level.
Image credit: P2i
WS: Most of the excitement around hydrophobic coatings at the moment is centred on electronics - are there any other key applications for the technology that you have looked at?
SC: We looked at a whole variety of products that could be treated – footwear, consumables like pipettes, sports clothing for the Olympics, and bicycles and kayaks as well – basically the technology can be applied to any solid object, so we wanted to test as wide a range as possible.
Early on, we put out a number of press releases about how we could take any solid object and apply the highest level of liquid repellency, without affecting the base product and its function. So we got a lot of interested parties with regards for other products like electronics.
Our first step into electronics was actually with hearing aids – we partnered with a number of companies to process their products. One particular company, GN ReSound, took us up in full force in the early days. Since then, four of the top six manufacturers have signed up, and we’re in over 60 percent of the world’s hearing aids.
The most important thing with the hearing aids is that we applied this technology to protect the device against rain water, sweat, and even earwax, but it didn’t affect the delicate electronics. The companies we ended up working with surveyed a number of different coating technologies, and they found that most either didn’t provide the level of protection they wanted, or damaged the electronics. Our gas phase process that gave high levels of liquid repellency was the perfect balance for the manufacturers.
The success in hearing aids led us into the mobile phone sector. Companies in that industry started to hear about our success in the electronics market, and a number of them contacted us.
WS: How did you come to be focused so heavily on the mobile phone market?
SC: The reason we didn’t go for the mobile phone market initially is that we believed that the only way we could provide value in that market would be to provide protection against immersion – and that’s something that we weren’t capable of guaranteeing to begin with.
But we quickly found out that there was a high degree of reliability benefit by applying our Splash-proof technology, which is what we call the technology to provide protection from accidental splashes and spills.
This increased reliability of electronic devices is really important to network operators, replacing broken phones can be expensive, and customer complaints about malfunctioning phones can be a big cause of customer dissatisfaction.
So Splash-proof achieves a high reliability against splashes and spills, but it does not protect against dunking the phone for longer periods of time, and that was the real Holy Grail for phone manufacturers. We set up a research program to address just that in February 2012, and that program has now resulted in our Dunkable™ technology.
Dunkable™ gives true barrier layer performance. It doesn’t prevent water from physically getting into the device, but it’s an electrical barrier, which allows the device to survive under liquids. We tested the coating with immersion in water, beer, wine, Gatorade and coffee – all the most common liquids for that kind of accident, enabling us to say we can provide complete device protection.
Image credit: P2i
WS: You have partnered with some electronic device manufacturers to apply your coating during production - are there any plans to provide consumer-level or aftermarket access to your technology as well?
SC: That’s certainly something that we’ve thought about. I think the challenge with the retail market is one of scale – a commercial retail machine might process a few units a day, whereas the manufacturers would do thousands. It’s something we could always do, if we choose to, but the economics are more favorable to go through the manufacturers.
Having said that, I can see why people are looking at the commercial and retail applications, because the level of due diligence you need to go through to technically prove the product is quite low for the consumer market, whereas for the OEMs it’s incredibly high. So I think people who haven’t managed to get any traction with the OEMs are looking at the retail aspect of the market.
But it’s something we can certainly look at doing later when we feel the demand is big enough. It could be possible at some point to develop a desktop machine that could be in every home, like a 3D printer, that would allow people to protect any object they wished with liquid repellency.
We could also expand the platform to provide other functionality – using the same process, but with different coating materials to provide anti-scratch protection, anti-microbial activity, or protein resistancy.
Really the biggest challenge we have, as with many small technology companies, is not to get distracted. There are all sorts of avenues we could go down in the future, but Splash-proof and Dunkable™ for the electronics markets are our focus at the moment.
Wearable electronics is a potential huge growth area, and one where we really have something to offer – obviously these electronics will be exposed to rainwater, sweat, and so on, and our coating technology will be able to transparently protect these devices against damage. So that’s one of the next areas we want to move into.
WS: P2i is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary - congratulations! How are you planning to mark the occasion?
SC: We are announcing the roll-out of Dunkable™ this year. Machines will be in factories by the middle of the year, and phones with Dunkable™ technology will be available in 2014. It’s quite exciting to see this come to fruition, which started as an R&D project just a couple of years ago.
There is a press day on Tuesday 28th, then we are having an internal event on Wednesday, which is the actual 10th anniversary day. There will be presentations, team building events, a guest speaker, etc. So it will be a good couple of days.
WS: What are P2i's plans for 2014? Where can people see you this year?
SC: The key trade show for us this year is Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. That starts on the 24th February, and will run for that week. We’re on booth 6I41, and we’ll have a lab there with a machine, and lots of demos, so that is a great place to come and see what we can do.
The website is also a great place to get more information or get in touch with us if people want to find out more.
About Stephen Coulson
Stephen invented the P2i technology while carrying out his PhD at Durham University on ‘liquid repellent surfaces’. He was consequently employed by the UK’s Ministry of Defence to set up a plasma capability and further scale-up the patented technology for industrial applications.
In 2001, Stephen moved into project managing the UK Nuclear Biological and Chemical clothing program, but continued to exploit the plasma technology for a range of commercial applications.
Stephen was the founding member of P2i when it was formed in January 2004 and has more than 18 years’ experience in advanced material sciences and plasma processing, focusing on the commercialisation of the technology as a proven, cost effective industrial process. He is a member of P2i’s main Board.