The automotive detailing world is seemingly in its “second round” of buzz about ceramic coatings. They first made the scene around the mid-2000s with promises of “never touch the vehicle again” or “no more scratches.” Several detail chemical manufacturers have since come out with their own formulations, which are increasingly easier to apply and come with more reasonable predictions of durability and longevity. Moreover, the emphasis on the use of coatings has changed from “apply it once and walk away forever” to one of “apply it and then maintain it.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Gallahar at the 2017 International Carwash Association show in Las Vegas this last April. He did such a wonderful job of explaining the science of ceramic coatings that I suggested we team up on writing an article; hence, this month’s column. Our goal is to write about these products in a non-product-specific, generic fashion so that readers can understand coating technology, application, and capability. We have included explanations that are meant to be simple for everyone to understand (including your customers!) as well as the deeper science of the subject for those who are interested.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
We have started out in this article using the term “ceramic coating,” simply because it is perhaps the most recognized term in the industry. There are many other terms that are used that are essentially referring to the same category of protective chemical. Simply add the word “coating” to any of these: silica-quartz, liquid quartz, glass, SiO2, silicon dioxide, nano, and others. The term “quartz” is often used because the chemistry of coatings utilizes the element that occurs naturally in quartz crystals. The term “glass” is often used because the cured coating is literally a layer of silicon dioxide molecules that is a couple of microns thick (a “micron” is one-millionth of a meter).
The chemistry used in ceramic coatings is actually borrowed from other industries that require super-durable waterproofing protection, like paint coatings for architecture, bridges, and even space shuttles.
HOW DO COATINGS WORK?
A ceramic coating is a highly specialized clear liquid that is carefully wiped onto the vehicle surface resulting in a protective, glass-like nano-coating. “Glass-like” indicates that the coating is completely transparent and highly reflective and also refers to its chemical make-up. Unlike a piece of glass, however, the coating is micro-thin, hence the term “nano,” which refers to measurements that are in billionths of a meter. (Scientists that are dealing with nanotechnology are dealing with substances at the molecular level.)
Ceramic coatings semi-permanently adhere to exterior automotive surfaces and offer the best available resistance against scratches, swirls, ultraviolet (UV) ray damage, corrosion, oxidation, heat, chemical attack, and other environmental impacts. Ceramic coatings cannot be washed away or chemically stripped. The only way to remove them is by abrasion or sanding. A properly cured ceramic coating generates a very hard surface that is glossy, uniform, smooth, and highly durable. A prominent added benefit is that coatings are hydrophobic (water-repellent), which generates a self-cleaning effect.
Please do not take the words in the above paragraph to mean that a coated vehicle cannot be scratched or damaged. No coating is completely permanent and permanently free of defects. All coatings require maintenance over the life of the vehicle to maintain that freshly applied appearance. More on this later.
While there are many methods for creating a glass-like ceramic coating over an automobile’s top coat, the technology is essentially the same. Coatings start out as a liquid that is composed of the active ingredients suspended in a volatile solvent. The solvent prevents the active ingredients from setting up before it can be applied, and acts as a transfer medium to ease the process of applying the product to the vehicle surface.
Once applied to the surface, the coating is catalyzed by one of several methods so that the active ingredient “polymerizes” — a term that refers to the molecular activity that occurs while the coating cures. Essentially, during curing, the molecules “orient” into an orderly, low-energy framework of alternating Silicon (Si) and Oxygen (O) atoms that branch out three-dimensionally, cross-link (connect with each other), and cure into a hard shell. “Low-energy” refers to the fact that the molecules of the coating shell are not likely to react with outside chemical influences (like cleaning agents and environmental contaminants) and are, in a sense, “happy” to just sit where they are.
Formulas vary in the utilization of catalysts that encourage the polymerization. These catalysts range from chemicals that are included in the coating formula itself to simply contact with moisture present in the air. Coatings often contain various additives that promote gloss, hydrophobics, slip and glide, or other properties that make the coatings more effective and easier to use.
Directions for use are fairly universal across the various commercially available formulas. The ceramic is to be applied out of direct sunlight and on a cool, dry surface that is free of contaminants or surface defects. A euro-dropper cap allows the product to be dripped from a small bottle onto a specialized applicator block, which is often a suede cloth draped over a spongy backing material.
Once the block is “loaded” with the proper amount of coating, it is glided across small area of vehicle substrate (e.g., paint, plastic trim, or glass) in a crosshatch pattern to level the product. The product is then allowed to dwell on the surface for a short period of time, ranging from 30 seconds to several minutes, depending on the specific coating brand. Then the excess liquid is gently wiped from the surface using a low-nap towel, cloth, or microfiber and buffed to a high shine with another towel. (The “excess liquid” is actually the solvents and other non-active delivery mechanisms that assist in the ease of transferring the coating to the surface.) This process is repeated section-by-section across the vehicle until all areas to be protected have had the ceramic applied.
Post-application immediate care typically involves keeping the vehicle indoors and protected from water, dirt, and dust for 12 to 24 hours. This allows the coating to fully set-up. Water droplets allowed to dwell on the surface during this curing time can be very difficult to remove.
The curing process can be accelerated with the careful use of infrared or ultra-violet lamps, depending on the manufacturer’s recommendations. Nonetheless, the coating typically continues to cross-link internally — and thus reach full effectiveness — after a few days and sometimes as much as two weeks.
BENEFITS TO THE CONSUMER
There are four main categories of tangible benefits for the vehicle owner: appearance enhancement, protection, hydrophobicity, and durability. Each will be explained below:
We already know that the clear-coat layer of a two-stage paint system tends to offer a deeper gloss and richer color appearance than a traditional single-stage paint system. Using the same logic, the appearance of virtually any paint system will be enhanced by the addition of a layer of clear ceramic coating, especially if the paint surface is first properly prepared before coating application. (More on surface preparation later.)
A properly coated paint job will appear to have a greater depth of color and an enhanced gloss. And because the coating surface has a greater resistance to marring and scratching, the appearance enhancement will last longer.
Quite simply, there is no better protection available for exterior automotive surfaces than ceramic coatings. They are naturally resistant to oxidation from UV light, are highly temperature resistant, and very hard. They will resist a laundry list of environmental impacts and harsh chemicals. Exactly how coatings offer such excellent protection will be explored in next month’s column.
Due to the hydrophobic nature of the coatings, the automobile has a self-cleaning effect that leaves it with a higher quality finish for greater periods of time. The chemistry of the cured coating is naturally extremely water repellant and has a higher “contact angle,” leading to extreme water beading. Water tends to just want to fall off the panel instead of sticking to it. The same is true for dirt and dust — it won’t stick to the coating. So, simply rinsing off the coated car with water can go a long way to cleaning it. Thus, vehicle washing becomes a much easier process.
Because of the many aspects of ceramic coatings already mentioned, they tend to be highly durable. They repel water, are hard and resistant to harsh chemicals and UV light, and form a bond with the vehicle substrate that can only be broken by abrasion.
Rather than the traditional wax or sealant, which lasts for a few months at best, the durability of the ceramic coatings can last for years. In fact, some manufacturers and detail companies choose to offer guarantees or warranties.
We have started to unravel how this relatively new technology — the chemistry of ceramic coatings — works and what benefits it has for the consumer. Yet, there are many more questions that need to be answered, such as the preparation for, maintenance of, and limitations of ceramic coatings. These will be saved for a continuation of this discussion in a future column. Stay tuned.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Gallahar is a research and development chemist for B&B Blending LLC of Northglenn, CO. He can be contacted at (303) 289-6320 or email@example.com.