Chemical Breakthroughs Could Lead to Self-Cleaning Lawn Furniture Activated by the Sun

By Chelsea Whyte on July 18, 2012 1:19 AM EDT

lawn furniture bacteria test
Lawn furniture left out in the yard often gathers bacteria and fungi (pictured at top), but with a coating of titanium dioxide, sunlight can activate molecules that make the plastic clean itself (below). (Photo: © Fraunhofer IGB)

Hot, sticky summer weather can make lawn furniture a haven for bacteria and algae, but new chemical breakthroughs could bring that to an end. Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart are experimenting with titanium dioxide which can stop fungus from festering on outdoor chairs while they are left in the sun.

The researchers tested plastics infused with titanium dioxide molecules, which are activated by the UV light in sunshine. These molecules act as a catalyst, triggering a chemical reaction which produces free radicals. These molecules with unpaired electrons at the surface have a tendency to degrade cell walls along with the DNA inside, reports Popular Science, leaving your lawn chairs free of that black film of bacteria that can accumulate.

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"For example, we ran some outdoor tests on garden chair armrests with photocatalytic coatings and compared them to ones made from conventional plastic," said Iris Trick, group manager at the IGB.

And the tests worked. After coating plastic chair armrests with a flurry of fungus, algae, mosses and bacteria, the team found the plastic almost completely clean and still white, even after leaving it exposed to the weather for two years. Chairs left out that long without the titanium dioxide coating had a layer of dirt that was almost impossible to remove, said the researchers.

Titanium oxide coatings are also being developed to keep building facades and glass surfaces clean, according to Gizmodo.

"If you apply a thin coating of titanium dioxide to a glass surface such as a smartphone screen, the skin oils and fingerprints gradually disappear from the display by themselves," said Michael Vergöhl, head of department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films IST in Braunschweig and head of the Fraunhofer Photocatalysis Alliance.

All it takes is one hour of sunlight, unlike previous photocatalytic surfaces which would require a phone to be left in the sun for three days. The researchers say that the next step is to develop coatings that can be activated by artificial light.

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