RENO, Nev. (KRNV & MyNews4.com) -- Beneath the paint, every airplane has a coating that keeps the aluminum from rusting. It's a substance scientists say is carcinogenic, but for 60 years there's been no substitute. Researchers at the University of Nevada say they've found an alternative.
"Since the 1950's the aerospace industry has been using these coatings called chromate conversion coatings to protect the alumnium in the aircraft from corroding," said Dev Chidambaram, graduate program director of University of Nevada, Reno's chemical and materials engineering department.
Chromate conversion coatings act as a primer for airplanes, but Chidambaram says the problem is they're carcinogenic.
"Right now every six months every aircraft has to get the chromate conversion coatings," Chidambaram said.
So people applying that coating are facing a big cancer risk. Chromates were made infamous by the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" - which was based on true events.
They've been banned in most industries.
"The defense department and the aerospace industry have been exempted from the ban just purely because there is no subsitute," Chidambaram said.
Also, the consequences of airplane failure are too high. Researchers have been looking for an alternative coating for decades, but haven't found one - until now.
"For me it's been a 14 year-long process, but the work at UNR has been about two and a half years," Chidambaram said.
Chidambaram and his team replaced the carcinogenic compound with an environmentally friendly one that keeps the most important feature: self-healing.
"Even now when you scratch it, the coating migrates and self-heals and that self-healing property is what makes our coating different from the others," Chidambaram said.
It's better on the ground and in the air.
"People are protected when they're coating the plane, and they're protected when they're flying the plane," Chidambaram said.
Chidambaram says after all the necessary tests, it will probably be five years before their coating is used by the Department of Defense, but it could be sooner for commerical airplanes.