I suffer from incurable optimism. Every day I go to the mailbox expecting a fantastic package to arrive. I imagine that every new store opening in town will specialize in my hobby - the Texas Hold Em’ Poker Shoppe, or The Ping Pong Emporium. I can’t pass a garage sale without thinking they are selling off a Raman spectrometer for five bucks because they think it’s some kind of fax machine. It’s no wonder I have had my hopes dashed a few times working in ultraviolet (UV)-curable coatings.

Since 1994 I have been working with UV technology. This is not as long as many people, but longer than most. And for 13 years I have been eagerly awaiting that “killer ap,” which would surely come. I was certain it was going to be UV powder. It wasn’t.

I thought perhaps it might be UV-cure composites. Wrong again. I would have bet the farm on UV refinish. Still no luck. Now I am thinking it might be UV coil coatings.

The UV Problem

It seems like each time the window has opened wide for UV, it has closed just as quickly, as some competing technology has slithered in to fill the void. UV powder was supplanted by thermoset powder, while the laminate suppliers developed new, lower-priced materials to hold on to their turf. And as composite manufacturers turned to UV when they could no longer spray their styrene-laden resins, those same suppliers came up with non-styrene versions before the UV guys could get out of the gate.

In the refinish world, the infrared guys shortened up their process times while the UV suppliers tried to extend their products beyond primer-surfacers and into clearcoats. Now near-infrared threatens to replace UV in coil coatings before UV even gets going.

So why, after 13 years, am I still waiting for Santa Claus to bring me a big UV surprise? Why has it been so tough for UV to deliver the powerful one-two knockout blow?

From my observation post, the problem has frequently been the time required to develop an acceptable UV formulation for a given application. More frequently than not, lab trials for UV coatings take on the feel of a science experiment.

It’s not that the chemists are doing bad work - on the contrary, some of the work is truly spectacular. But they are constrained by a pervasive corporate outlook that has decided to wait for customers with cash in hand before committing resources to work that needs to be done on an ongoing basis.

The problem with this frugal approach is that a guy desperately needing a flashlight because he’s lost in the dark is not going to wait around for a light bulb to be invented (especially when there’s a match nearby, no matter how much better the flashlight will be).

The Light Bulb – Universal Symbol of Invention

If the quiz show “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” asked who invented the light bulb, how many contestants would answer Maxim, Woodward, Upton or Swan? While Edison is the man credited with inventing the light bulb, he is actually the guy responsible for perfecting it to the point where it could be a commercial success. He described his own formula for genius as “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Edison purchased many basic light bulb patents and worked to make them commercially viable. But it may well be that Edison’s greatest creation was his lab at Menlo Park. Determined to apply exhaustive resources to the problem, a newspaper account of his research lab reported that it contained “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels...silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell...cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores....”

Edison’s great lab was not funded from light bulbs, but from sales of the quadraplex telegraph. Ironically, money used to fund the laboratory that would bring us the light bulb was funded by the sale of a device no longer in use.

If Edison were put to the coatings task, he would reason that today’s traditional paint sales must fuel the R&D of tomorrow’s coatings. Companies that invest in UV technology with money from other successful businesses will overcome the difficulties of formulations with their own inspiration and perspiration.

By the time of Edison’s 1879 lamp invention, gas lighting was a mature, well-established industry. The gas infrastructure was in place, franchises had been granted, and manufacturing facilities for both gas and equipment were profitable operations. Perhaps as important, people had grown accustomed to the idea of lighting with gas.

The UV Challenge

As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy – and he is us.” For suppliers, the nemesis is the current mindset to seek immediate return on every R&D dollar rather than develop the Menlo Park mentality of pursuing the required UV R&D in the trenches. For applicators, the challenge is to embrace the advantages that UV offers.

UV is not an unproven technology; virtually every automotive headlight lens, eyeglass lens, magazine, no-wax floor and fiber optic cable has proven that the technology has immense value. But in addition to these established uses for UV, a wide range of other products can benefit from this technology.

As an optimist, I hope suppliers will see the light, but realistically, the next successes might come from you. Let your interest in UV coatings be heard by your current supplier of non-UV coatings. In a world fighting the high costs of energy, pollution and global warming, a more efficient coating technology that uses far less energy and produces virtually no hazardous emissions is undoubtedly a pursuit worth tackling.