While attempting to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease researchers have discovered a new nanomaterial that can repel dust and water and could provide a self-cleaning coating for windows or solar panels. Unlike similar dust-busting materials that take inspiration from the surface of the lotus leaf, the new material is actually made up of molecules of peptides that “grow” to resemble small forests of grass. The coating also acts as a super-capacitor, thereby having implications for electric cars in that it could provide an energy boost to batteries.

Using a variety of peptides - short polymers formed from the linking of amino acids – the researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) found a novel way to control the atoms and molecules of peptides so that they "grow" to resemble small forests of grass. The short peptides, which are simple and inexpensive to produce, were used to create self-assembling nano-tubules in a vacuum under high temperatures.

In the range of one-billionth of a meter in size, these nano-tubules can withstand extreme heat and are resistant to water, making them an ideal candidate for the creation of a coating that could be used to cover the sealed outer windows of skyscrapers so that they never need be washed by daredevil window-washers again.

Such a coating could also improve the operation of solar panels, which can become up to 30% less efficient due to dust accumulating on their surface. This would also save money on maintenance and cleaning, which is especially a problem in dusty deserts, where many solar farms are installed.

As a capacitor with unusually high energy density, the researchers say the nano-tech material could also give electric batteries a boost. One of the limitations of the electric car is thrust, and the team thinks the research could lead to a solution to this difficult problem and provide the extra oomph required in starting an electric car, going up a hill, or passing other vehicles on the highway.

"Our technology may lead to a storage material with a high density," says TAU graduate student Lihi Adler-Abramovich. "This is important when you need to generate a lot of energy in a short period of time. It could also be incorporated into today's lithium batteries."

The TAU researchers have already been approached to develop the coating technology commercially, which could see self-cleaning windows and more efficient energy storage devices appearing in a few years, but they also plan to continue their work on short peptides for a treatment of Alzheimer’s disease – the original focus of the research.