A new process that can sprout microscopic spikes on nearly any type of particle may lead to more environmentally friendly paints and a variety of other innovations.

Made by a team of University of Michigan engineers, the "hedgehog particles" are named for their bushy appearance under the microscope.

The new process modifies oily, or hydrophobic, particles, enabling them to disperse easily in water. It can also modify water-soluble, or hydrophilic, particles, enabling them to dissolve in oil or other oily chemicals.

One of the first applications for the particles is likely to be in paints and coatings, where toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like toluene are now used to dissolve pigment.

Pigments made from hedgehog particles could potentially be dissolved in nontoxic carriers like water, the researchers say.

Other possible applications include better oil dispersants that could aid in the cleanup of oil spills, as well as better ways to deliver non-water-soluble prescription medications.

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Also: Learn about a Floating Oil-Spill Containment Device.