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Anti-freeze proteins

Proteins can lend materials new capabilities: They can lower the freezing point and prevent aircraft, wind turbines, refrigerators and shutters from icing over too quickly. Researchers are learning from the frost-protection systems of fish, insects and plants.

Winter flounders can survive even at temperatures below freezing point. The secret behind their frost-protection system is now being unveiled by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research IFAM in Bremen. To this end, they are producing the protective proteins of the fish in a laboratory environment, and are adapting the newly acquired knowledge for use in materials research and many other applications. One possibility would be to add these natural substances to ice cream so that it stays nice and creamy. At present, however, the focus is primarily on technical applications such as wind turbines, electricity pylons and cables, and aircraft wings, all of which are adversely affected by ice formation. Dr. Ingo Grunwald of the IFAM explains how this biological anti-freeze system works: “Poikilothermic organisms such as fish or insects aren’t able to produce warmth from food in the way polar bears and all other warm-blooded animals do. Instead, they adapt their body temperature to the given surroundings. Their cells are equipped with proteins that reduce ice-crystal formation to prevent them from being harmed by ice crystals.” The researchers are now developing new surface coatings with an integrated anti-ice effect based on this principle. They are analyzing these anti-freeze proteins (AFPs), which are made up of amino-acid chains, and are investigating ways of transferring their frost-protection mechanisms to painted surfaces. “We make up these natural substances component by component and bind them to the painted surface. The samples are then placed in specially designed cold test chambers where they demonstrate their abilities under icing conditions,” says Grunwald. The research team’s objective is to integrate the specific properties of the proteins in large-scale functional surfaces. However, unlike methods which lower the melting point – with the help of salt sprinkled on roads, for example – the new technique is to reduce ice formation as a preventative measure. If the researchers succeed in integrating the desired properties in the selected surfaces, this will reduce the need to de-ice aircraft by spraying them with glycol-water mixtures in future. However, there is still a lot to be done before then. Some challenges have already been mastered: The team has worked out strategies for binding the proteins and their components to painted surfaces without damaging the surface structure, and also developed new rigs for series testing.

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