Sally Ramsey lays out two sheets of newspaper.
Both, she demonstrates, can be rolled, folded, and written on. They look almost the same, except that one is slightly glossier. And only one can pass the bucket test: Plunge them both into water, and the first falls apart, sopping wet—pretty much what you'd expect of wet newspaper. The other comes out intact, water beading off it.
This is Ramsey's magic act. Her secret: an off-the-shelf $20 mini paint gun. Well, no—the secret is what's in the gun, a spray made up of nanosized versions of commercially available chemical compounds. Exactly what they are, Ramsay declines to say. In any case, they're sprayed on the paper, which then is run through a machine that zaps the surface with ultraviolet light.
What you get isn't just waterproof paper. Anyone can do that. No, the real magic is waterproof paper that's durable, efficient to manufacture, and safe for the environment. The coating process doesn't corrode or pollute, and the paper itself can decompose in a landfill.
The promise of Ramsey's technology is what makes Ecology Coatings rather more interesting than just another startup with cheap furniture tucked behind a tiny strip mall in Akron, Ohio. It is that, of course. But think about the very real promise of hiking maps that don't disintegrate in the rain. Or never having to scrape the ice off your windshield. Or a car with brake pads that resist rust. And think about all that, all green.
Industrial coatings—sprays, finishes, or plating designed to keep plastic from scratching or metal from rusting—have long been the domain of old-line companies that used time-consuming, corrosive, environmentally unfriendly processes to make finishes stick. While more stringent environmental rules have driven the adoption of cleaner technologies, such as using water or heat to apply and cure coatings, those can take an hour or longer to dry and often can't be used in fragile electronics.
Ramsey, 54, a chemist from a family of chemists, cofounded Ecology Coatings 17 years ago. The science spun out of her previous work for a small metal-finishing shop. She had been working there, instead of in academic research or a big corporate job, because the flexible schedule allowed her to care for her two sons, both autistic. But it also provided a defining experience: "It was a real-world place with people who needed to spray real coatings and make real products," she says. "It forced me to look at every part of the process."
Today, Ramsey is a tiny whirlwind in a labcoat, happy in her makeshift office with bright blue chairs and steel shelves crammed with chemistry and venture- capital texts. There's also a trampoline—a smaller version of the one in her backyard—where Ramsey heads when she wants to shut out the world. "It's where I can make connections that I wouldn't normally make. I think it must be like runner's high or meditation. It's when I have my 'aha' moments."
Her most important insight: Most traditional coatings, like paints, are based in liquids, which dry via evaporation or with intense heat. That takes time, and the evaporation can send pollutants into the air. Ecology Coatings' products are actually liquid solids that don't evaporate, so curing takes a lot less time, and there are no emissions.
Companies began using UV light to cure coatings in the early 1990s, but it was the introduction of nanosized particles that won Ramsey's work serious attention. As the UV light hits photo initiators in the coatings, electrons are knocked loose, forcing the compounds to regroup and create new bonds. "It's serendipity that the chemistry and physics of ultraviolet light work differently on nanoparticles," she says. "In traditional coatings, the bonds are created in the beginning. But with nano and UV, it all comes together in the end."
Ramsey's research has yielded steel and brass coatings, as well as spray-on coatings that resist yellowing and flex without cracking. Now she's working on coatings that produce surfaces resistant to microbial growth, for medical uses. And one of Ramsey's pet projects is a layer of salt crystals, which, when applied to her waterproof paper, could prevent ice from forming.
In fact, DuPont licensed Ramsey's technology two years ago for its automotive coatings business. "Sally used a holistic approach to the problem," says technical manager Robert Matheson. "We were having a tough time getting coatings to work with ultraviolet light," he says, in part because to cure completely, the light has to shine through the entire coating. If it doesn't, the coating remains uncured. "Sally's process worked. Plus, it cut down on material costs and the time it takes to coat products."
In 2003, Ramsey met Richard D. Stromback, a young entrepreneur (he started a technology staffing outfit, which did well, and an Internet sports portal, which didn't) who subsequently bought a controlling interest in her company and took over as chairman. Now Stromback is in the middle of raising capital through an alternative public offering, or APO, in which Ecology Coatings merges with OCIS, a publicly traded "shell" company.
It's a funding strategy that is sometimes problematic. But if it pans out, Ecology could shift from strictly research to the development of commercial applications. It could start manufacturing products based on the waterproof-paper technology. It also could make Ramsey a very contented scientist. "My dream is to have an inventor's workshop where we apply the technology to all kinds of products that have useful applications," she says. "And I certainly would hope it helps clean up our world."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.