SANTA FE, N.M. — There’s no telling what hair trends will be in the future, but if one day you see someone with the Declaration of Independence etched into their locks, it’s a pretty good bet that scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory had something to do with it.
Product developers at LANL and Proctor and Gamble were recently awarded a U.S. Patent for a hair treatment process that would potentially allow someone to exhibit just about any image they want in their hair through light diffraction.
“Imagine a temporary tattoo for hair – that’s essentially what this is,” said Steve Stringer, a LANL employee who serves as industrial fellow to P&G.
Stringer said the patented process involves cutting a nanopattern into the hair that diffracts incident light and disperses colors.
The process itself requires no colorization, but is a natural occurrence.
“If you look at a parrot or a butterfly and see brilliant colors, you’re not looking at pigment, you’re looking at light diffraction,” Springer said. “It’s not pigment, it’s not paint, it’s actually sunlight that’s being spread by diffraction.
“What’s going on with the feathers and the butterfly wings is there are nanostructures, or ridges, that we can duplicate by cutting polymer with a laser,” he continued. “We’re talking about cuts that are thinner than the skin on your finger. What we did is we showed (P&G) how to cut into that layer of polymer.”
The application was first submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in September 2011 and received approval on Dec. 24, 2013. Listed as inventors are Bruce C. Lamartine and E. Bruce Orler of the lab’s Materials, Science and Technology Division, who Stringer said no longer work at the lab; Richard Matthew Charles Sutton of Cincinnati, where Proctor and Gamble is based; and Shuangqi Song of Houston.
The patent was assigned to Los Alamos National Security, LLC.
According to the application’s description, the process involves coating the hair with a with a polymer-containing fluid and inserting the hair into a pressing device.
The pressing device transforms the fluid into a film suitable for forming a nanostructured pattern. Once the hair and film are cooled and removed from the device, light that comes in contact with the hair is dispersed into colored light.
“Anyplace there is light, the light will diffract,” Stringer said. “You can make a pattern of tiger stripes, a company logo, or even the Declaration of Independence if you wanted to.”
It doesn’t have to be that elaborate. The process could be used to simply “color” the hair any shade under the rainbow.
Like common hair coloring methods, the process would have to be repeated as the hair grows or the film deteriorates through washing.
Stringer said the process has only been applied to small samples of hair and was paid for by Proctor and Gamble’s beauty care division.
“They took a look at it and went, ‘Wow, this really works.’ The next step is for the company to determine how to commercialize it,” Stringer said.
Proctor and Gamble did not immediately respond to an email and phone message from the Journal.
Stringer said Proctor and Gamble has had a relationship with Sandia National Laboratory and LANL for about 20 years, and have worked together on a number of projects. Not all of them are directly related to products on the market but have to do with creating more efficiency and reliability on manufacturing lines that he said has saved the company billions of dollars.
Two examples are water bottles and disposable diapers.
These days, water bottles are typically made of thinner plastic and have smaller necks, making them lighter and requiring less plastic.
Stringer said that, in the 1980s, a package of disposable diapers would contain about 24 diapers. Now, because the absorbent material is more refined, companies such as Proctor and Gamble and Kimberly-Clark can fit 96 diapers in the same size package.
Not only has LANL helped make manufacturing more efficient, but they’ve also done the same for waste disposal.
“We used the particle accelerator to see how the plastic is put together, and now they’re more crushable and there’s less to crush,” Stringer said. “With diapers, not only do you get more into packages, but we’re also not putting so much waste into landfills.”
Stringer said such partnerships between the lab and the business sector can be advantageous for all involved.
“I think it’s important that we use techniques that can be reapplied for the benefit of our external partners and for the benefit of the United States. It’s a nifty way for taxpayer dollars to get double use and it also helps with job creation,” he said.