A novel way to watch paint dry

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It’s often the first thing we notice about a vehicle, and it reveals a lot: how new (or not) the vehicle is, how it’s been cared for, where it’s been driven. 

“Consumers are extremely picky regarding the quality of the paint job on any car they purchase, new or old, and the 10- to 20-year appearance of a car depends on 10 to 20 critical minutes of application and drying,” says James Gilchrist, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University’s P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Paint, however, is more complicated than you might think. If its formulation isn’t right, instabilities can form unsightly pockmarks. It’s also highly energy intensive to apply, accounting for 60 percent of the energy consumed by a single automotive plant, says Gilchrist. Manufacturers use robots to spray the paint, and that spraying takes place in rooms designed to contain and safely emit volatile organic compounds. When an application isn’t done correctly, the vehicle must be recoated and touched up—a process that can cost a single plant more than $10 million per year.  

In November 2019, Gilchrist and his collaborators received a grant for a project that will essentially help industry get it right the first time. 

The National Science Foundation’s Fluid Dynamics program awarded Gilchrist—who is working with collaborators at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and PPG—more than half a million dollars ($304,000 of which funds Gilchrist’s lab) in support of his Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) proposal to better understand paint through kinematics and rheology (the study of how substances flow). 

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