Restorer removes tape from a 16th-century drawing

A hydrogel helps to peel sticky tape off a sixteenth-century copy of a drawing by Michaelangelo. Credit: PNAS

Materials science

Sticky tape on historic artworks comes clean

Solvent nanodroplets allow safe removal of old adhesive.

Since adhesive tape became widely available in the 1930s, conservators have often used it to hold artefacts together — including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But within decades, the polymers in the thick fluid that provides adhesion degrade, discolour and break apart. The polymers in tape’s plastic backing may suffer the same fate.

Piero Baglioni at the University of Florence, Italy, and his co-authors describe a technique for removing tape that is less likely than ordinary solvents to damage artworks and other objects. The researchers developed a hydrogel — a polymer with a large water component — containing solvent droplets less than 20 nanometres wide. When applied to tape, the hydrogel’s solvent droplets penetrate the backing and the adhesive, facilitating their removal.

The technique could be applied not only to tape removal, but also to cleansing objects such as scientific instruments destined for space, Baglioni says.