Finishing Line - August 2010

Nano — Below the Surface
By Robert Roman

The car wash industry has seen its fair share of snake-oil products. This has included car waxes that resist everything from flaming lighter fluid to oil sludge, instant paint scratch remover, no-spot detergents, waterless car wash products, never-wax paint sealant, etc.

Now, the industry is facing the prospect of self-cleaning and self-repairing automotive surfaces as described in the editor’s column (“On the Surface”) in the May issue of Auto Laundry News.

Auto trim that can repair itself, lotus-effect paint that repels dirt and grime, and spray-on liquid glass that resists dirt or allows for cleanup by merely rinsing a vehicle with warm water might have mind-boggling consequences for the car wash business and other related industries.

The notion of such products takes me back to a movie I watched on TV when I was a teenager. “The Man in a White Suit,” released in 1951, is a satirical comedy with actor Alec Guinness starring as a researcher who invents a fabric that repels dirt and never wears out.

Guinness makes a white suit with the fabric and proceeds to demonstrate its many properties. However, once people realize his invention would eventually put the textile industry out of business, the factory owner, trade union, and employees take stern measures to stifle it and him.

At the end of the movie, Guinness is being chased through the streets at night by a large angry mob. Once cornered, and through a slight flaw in the fabric which causes it to break apart over time, the crowd is able to tear at the suit until the actor is left standing only in his boxer shorts.

Sixty years later, similar innovations are approaching our doorstep.

Arguably, if self-cleaning and self-repairing automotive products ultimately provide proof positive, there may be the possibility that the car wash industry would revert back to the days of a bucket and garden hose located behind a gas station. Bye-bye car wash industry.

The latest and greatest white suit is a new type of spray-on liquid glass. This product is being hyped as a revolutionary invisible non-toxic spray that protects against everything from bacteria to UV radiation, soon to be used on a vast range of products.

Similar products are being sold online and on retail store shelves as nano glass rain repellant and various nano vehicle coatings that provide “lotus effect” auto maintenance. I found prices for 16 oz bottles ranging from $19.95 to almost $100 plus sales tax and shipping.

Liquid glass is applied in one simple step without hard rubbing or polishing. After the product cures, it provides an ultra-thin layer of “glass” protection and the vehicle can supposedly be cleaned with only warm water and without the use of detergent.

Liquid glass or “waterglass” is what you get if you add sodium silicate (Na2SiO3) to water. Waterglass has been around a long time and has been used to preserve certain foods; seal concrete and lumber; and make putty for plumbing and glazing applications, refractory materials, and certain automotive repairs (e.g. mufflers and head gaskets).

According to the literature, it is possible to prepare silicon surfaces with acid to make a hydrogen passive surface, expose to oxygenated water and you get a free acid (H2SiO3) which forms a slightly porous and thin layer of glass when it dries. If ethanol is added, it helps prevent spontaneous polymerization and, as the carrier dries, nanoscale silica clusters form that will adhere to virtually any surface.

So, is the “new” liquid glass really the next big thing or is it merely clever marketing hype to pander stuff to the Aunt Polly’s of the world? After reviewing the Material Data Safety Sheets for some of these “nano” car-care products, my guess is that most would fall into the latter category.

Even if this new liquid glass works to some extent, common experience has shown that most car-care miracle products fall short of the claims. Furthermore, even proof positive products like paint sealant and stain-resistant interior treatments haven’t led to the demise of the professional car wash industry. To the contrary, they have contributed to its growth.

On the other hand, lotus-effect vehicle paint might pose a threat to the car wash industry someday if OEMs and researchers can ever perfect what is turning into a decades-long process. If so, maybe one course of action for the car wash industry would be to simply chase these folks down and tear off their white suits.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com). You can reach Bob via e-mail at bob@carwashplan.com.

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