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Images of a droplet on a surface show the process of freezing (top row), during which condensation temporarily forms on the outside of the droplet as it freezes. The next two rows show the droplet thawing out on a surface coated with the new layered material. In the middle row, the droplet is heated by the coating immediately upon freezing, and the dashed lines show where the freezing at top is just catching up with the thawing from below. The bottom row shows a slower thawing process. Under identical conditions, the droplet stays frozen without the new coating. (Credit: The Varanasi Research Group)

A buildup of ice on an airplane wing can cause catastrophic failure. But preventing that buildup usually requires energy-intensive heating systems or chemical sprays that are environmentally harmful. A new system, based on a three-layered material, collects solar radiation, converts it to heat, and spreads that heat around so that the melting is not just confined to the areas exposed directly to the sunlight.

Once applied, it requires no further action or power source. It can even do its de-icing work at night using artificial lighting. The three layers, all made of inexpensive commercially available material, are bonded together, and then bonded to the surface that needs to be protected.

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