Cambridge company targets friction to lessen waste

Unique coating creates ‘no-waste’ ketchup, toothpaste containers

CAMBRIDGE — Whether it’s aircraft de-icing, power plant heat exchange, petroleum pipelines or bottles of ketchup, you have to contend with losses from friction, said Kripa Varanasi, PhD, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s a universal kind of a problem,” Varanasi said. “The interface between the liquid and the solid is what makes these products stick to containers.”

Twelve years ago, Varanasi and PhD candidate Dave Smith set out to find a practical world solution to a problem that might seem trivial but winds up costing consumers a considerable collective amount -- and ultimately harms the environment, since bottles with residue must be washed prior to recycling.

“I would say the day we figured out the thermodynamic phase diagram, we knew we had this thing,” Varanasi said.

Added Smith, “The first time we saw a droplet sliding on this little substrate we’re like, this is something special.”

That something special they dubbed Liquiglide -- a container coating that is not a set of chemicals, but rather an adjustable concept. In other words, if used in a ketchup container, Liquiglide would be made of food-grade materials. If used for lotions, its constituents would be skin-safe.

“We’re not inventing any new chemicals,” Smith said.

“In fact, we could be using things like vegetable oils or other common food-based materials that already are there in the food,” Varanasi said.

Varanasi and Smith established Liquiglide as a company in Cambridge and the super-slippery coatings are made in Billerica. At present, Liquiglide has found use in industrial applications and, most recently, in a partnership with Colgate on a ‘no-waste’ toothpaste container released in Europe.

“We’ve been working with them for a long time to completely transform toothpaste packaging,” Smith said. “We’re really excited with what we came up with. Completely recyclable. Transparent.”.

Smith said toothpaste-tube packaging hasn’t changed in more than 130 years.

“We’re really excited about it because this really shows in our minds the potential of what this technology can do,” Smith said. “By fundamentally changing a design constraint that products stick to surfaces and make them not stick to surfaces you can completely redesign the package and the whole consumer experience.”

There’s no word when a similar toothpaste product might become available in the U.S. And although picnic season is almost upon us, don’t look for that non-stick ketchup just yet. One industry question LiquiGlide has faced is whether ‘no waste’ would mean consumers would buy products less often. Their answer is -- the more consumers can get out of the bottle the more they will use.