MIT’s freaky non-stick coating keeps ketchup flowing

Those scientists at MIT in the US are a super-clever lot – and news of one of their latest innovations could be revolutionary for the condiments industry: watch never-before-seen videos of an amazing new condiment lubricant that makes the inside of bottles so slippery, nothing is left inside. This means no more pounding on the bottom of your ketchup containers – and a lot less wasted food.

How to get to those last globs of ketchup inevitably stuck to every bottle of sauce is a global problem. And it’s one that MIT PhD candidate, Dave Smith, with a team of mechanical engineers and nano-technologists at the Varanasi Research Group, have successfully addressed.

The result of their research is LiquiGlide, a “super slippery” coating made up of nontoxic materials that can be applied to all sorts of food packaging – though ketchup and mayonnaise bottles might just be the substance’s first targets.

Condiments may sound like a narrow focus for a group of MIT engineers, but not when you consider the impact it could have on food waste and the packaging industry. “It’s funny: Everyone is always like, ‘Why bottles? What’s the big deal?’ But then you tell them the market for bottles – just the sauces alone is a $17 billion market,” Smith says. “And if all those bottles had our coating, we estimate that we could save about one million tons of food from being thrown out every year.”

As Smith describes it, LiquiGlide is a surface that’s unique because it’s “kind of a structured liquid – it’s rigid like a solid, but it’s lubricated like a liquid.”

It works with many types of packaging – glass, plastic – and can be applied in any number of ways, including spraying the coating onto the inside of bottles. Now, thick sauces that would normally move like sludge seem to just fall out of LiquiGlide-coated bottles, as if they were suspended in space.

“It just floats right onto the sandwich,” Smith says.

One of the most significant challenges his team faced was making sure the coating was food safe, meaning his team could only work with materials the FDA had approved.

“We had a limited amount of materials to pick from,” Smith says. “I can’t say what they are, but we’ve patented the hell out of it.”

Check out what happens when you pour ketchup out of a LiquiGlide-coated bottle:

For point of reference, here’s ketchup coming out of a regular bottle. Keep in mind, this is the exact same ketchup. It’s so time-consuming and wasteful.

Originally, Smith’s team, which has been working for years now on developing various types of surface coatings, was pursuing different aims.

“We were really interested in – and still are – using this coating for anti-icing, or for preventing clogs that form in oil and gas lines, or for non-wetting applications like, say, on windshields,” Smith says.

“Somehow this sparked the idea of putting it in food bottles. It could be great just for its slippery properties. Plus, most of these other applications have a much longer time to market; we realized we could make this coating for bottles that is pretty much ready. I mean, it is ready.”

But he’s already close to experiencing the sweet taste of victory: Last week, LiquiGlide came in second place, out of 215 teams, in MIT’s $100k Entrepreneurship Competition. His team also took home the audience-choice award.

Smith is now in talks with a few bottle companies to market LiquiGlide, though nothing is official yet. It’s still early. The team hasn’t even come up with its own company name, nor been incorporated yet. And their lab is still a complete mess.

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