Sunday, September 11, 2005

Engineered Materials

TIA Daily reader Peter de Laat brought to our attention a company in Virginia that is developing Metal Rubber--a material that is flexible like rubber and conducts like metal--while withstanding extreme conditions.

"Terrible, horrible things can be done to this millimeters-thick patch of shimmering material crafted by chemists at NanoSonic in Blacksburg, Virginia. Twist it, stretch it double, fry it to 200°C, douse it with jet fuel—the stuff survives. After the torment, it snaps like rubber back to its original shape, all the while conducting electricity like solid metal."

The company uses a process called electrostatic self-assembly, which builds up a material layer by layer, the molecular composition of each extremely thin layer being precisely controlled. It has been using this process to design materials with a desired combination of mechanical, electrical, optical, thermal and chemical properties for various clients including the Missile Defense Agency.

The Development of Metal Rubber is a part of a long human endeavor of making materials to suit our purposes, going back to the time when man discovered that adding tin to copper makes it considerably stronger and inaugurated the Bronze Age.

In 1830's, Charles Goodyear was excited about the potential large-scale applications of a flexible material called rubber, but the material had a major drawback--it melted in the summer heat and froze solid in winter cold--until he discovered that adding sulphur to it eliminated the problem. In the late Nineteenth century, steel quickened the pace of human lives using rails and began to uplift our cities.

Twentieth century brought the full strength of engineering to bear on the development materials that have transform our lives:

Here is the honor call, lead rightfully by Plastics:

1907 Leo Baekeland made first totally synthetic plastic called Bakelite.
1910 Cellophane
1926 Synthetic rubber.
1927 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
1930s Engineers develop new molding and extrusion techniques for plastics.
1933 First continuous casting of steel
1936 Plexiglass.
1938 Nylon.
1938 Teflon
1938 Fiberglass.
1938 Foam glass insulating material.
1939 Plastic contact lens.
1946 Tupperware.
1946 Vinyl floor covering.
1946 Aluminum-based metallic yard.
1961 Superpolymers (heat resistant).
1964 Acrylic paint.
1964 Carbon fiber (used to reinforce materials in high temperature environment).
1964 Beryllium (hard metal) developed for heat shields in spacecraft
1986 Synthetic skin.
1990s New composites and lightweight steel.

For an article on the discovery of high-performance materials in the Twentieth Century and a more extensive timeline click here.

-- Shrikant Rangnekar

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