As airplanes fly through clouds of super-cooled water droplets, areas around the nose, the leading edges of the wings, and the engine cones experience low airflow, which allows water droplets to stick and form a layer of ice, says Hirotaka Sakaue, a researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Current anti-icing techniques include diverting hot air from the engines to the wings, and inflatable membranes known as pneumatic boots that crack ice off the leading edge of an aircraft's wings.
The researchers said their super-hydrophobic, or water repelling, coating works differently by preventing water from sticking to the airplane's surface in the first place.
Microscopic particles of a Teflon-based material called polytetrafluoroethylene in the coating reduces the energy needed to detach a drop of water from a surface, they said.
"If this energy is small, the droplet is easy to remove," Sakaue said. "In other words, it's repelled."
The team will present their findings at the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting beginning Nov. 18 in San Diego.