A breakthrough process that makes oily substances dissolve in water could lead to the development of lower volatile organic compound paints and a variety of other innovations, according to researchers.

The new process, created by University of Michigan engineers, modifies hydrophobic particles into “hedgehog particles” through the addition of “spikes”, enabling them to disperse in water.

“We thought we’d made a mistake,” professor of engineering Nicholas Kotov said. “We saw these particles that are supposed to hate water dispersing in it and we thought maybe the particles weren’t hydrophobic, or maybe there was a chemical layer that was enabling them to disperse. But we double-checked everything and found that, in fact, these particles defy the conventional chemical wisdom that we all learned in high school.”

According to the researchers, one of the first applications for the breakthrough, detailed in Nature, could be in paints and coatings, where toxic VOCs like toluene are commonly used to dissolve pigment. Pigments made from hedgehog particles could potentially be dissolved in nontoxic carriers like water, the researchers say.

This could lead to fewer VOC emissions from paints and coatings, which the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates at over eight million tonnes a year in the US alone.

“VOC solvents are toxic, they’re flammable, they’re expensive to handle and dispose of safely,” professor Kotov said. “So if you can avoid using them, there’s a significant cost savings in addition to environmental benefits.”

While low- and no-VOC paints are already on the market, Kotov said hedgehog particles could provide a simpler, more versatile and less expensive way to manufacture them.

Professor Kotov envisions a variety of other applications, including better oil dispersants that could aid in the cleanup of oil spills and better ways to deliver non-water-soluble prescription medications.