Scientists from the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science collaborated with a team at the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) to develop solutions to overcome the damage of dust in paintings, particularly modern works that feature acrylic paint.

Art conservators recognize that dust particles larger than 10 micrometers can easily be removed from the surface of artwork with an air jet. But smaller particles may be more challenging: wet- and dry-cleaning techniques have been used, but both have the potential to damage the work, since acrylic paint is porous and any application can be absorbed and create damage from the inside.

Microscopic dust lifted by micropillars. Image Credit: Vanderlick LabMicroscopic dust lifted by micropillars. Image Credit: Vanderlick LabThe researchers developed a plastic film, inspired by the sticky feet of geckos and using the force of static cling. What appears to be a plain plastic film is in fact non-sticky, elastic polymer, polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which, at the microscopic level, boasts millions of tiny columns.

The columns, or pillars, range in size from 2 to 50 micrometers diameter, and pick up particles of dust relative to their size. Although inspired by geckos, the polymer is not designed to adhere. Rather the PDMS polymer has only a minimal interaction with whatever it’s being used to clean but it creates enough of an electrostatic charge to detach the dust particles. By tapping the film to the surface, dust is removed with no damage to the substrate.