Entomophobes have long wished for ways to stop bugs from scrambling up walls and into their homes. Now scientists at Cambridge University may have an answer: Insectislide, a chemical coating that causes bugs to slip, turning creepy crawlies into creepy fallies.
Insects cling easily to even supersmooth surfaces because pads on their feet secrete a special emulsion — a mix of oil and water — that acts like glue. But last year, while studying how roaches and ants use this ooze to defy gravity, Jan-Henning Dirks and his fellow Cambridge zoologists noticed that bugs repeatedly slid down a glass pole that had been covered in a chemical polymer. On closer inspection, they found that the plastic-like material absorbs the water in the insects' emulsion, leaving only slick oil on their feet. "The coating acts like a selective sponge," explains Dirks. "They start slipping on their own foot sweat."
The team believes the technology has myriad potential applications and is hunting for partners that can commercialize this repellent. Insectislide paint, for example, could vex termites, which cause several billion dollars of damage in the U.S. each year. In spray form, Insectislide, which is nontoxic, could be used on kitchen cabinets, keeping counters roach-free.
The chemical hasn't yet been tried on spiders, but take heart, arachnophobes: Dirks says that the eight-limbed beasts are on his to-do list.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.