When it comes to those last globs of ketchup inevitably stuck to every bottle of Heinz, most people either violently shake the container in hopes of eking out another drop or two, or perform the "secret" trick: smacking the "57" logo on the bottle’s neck. But not MIT PhD candidate Dave Smith. He and a team of mechanical engineers and nano-technologists at the Varanasi Research Group have been held up in an MIT lab for the last two months addressing this common dining problem.
The result? 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."
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.
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."
Here’s mayo coming out of the coated bottle:
As opposed to this:
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." As you can see.
Ironically, if LiquiGlide is a success, it will just mean Smith has to pound even more bottles of ketchup the old-fashioned way. He still has to perform the annoying task in product demos, to show a comparison between the LiquiGlide-sprayed bottles that work and the traditional bottles that don’t. "It was never really a personal pain point for me, but I do hate struggling to get sauce out of the bottles," Smith says, laughing. "I didn’t know about the tapping of the '57' until I started looking into this. It was all news to me."
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.
"We have all types of sauces, jellies, and jams everywhere in our lab," Smith says. "It’s like a closet full of condiments."