American Elephants

Look Around. There Are Some Astonishing Things Out There! by The Elephant's Child

Every once in a while you trip over something new— something new to you that you had been completely unaware of previously— and you suddenly realize that there are whole worlds of things to see and learn about.

Long ago, my mother wanted me to be musical. We had a piano (which nobody played) and she rounded-up a piano teacher. I hated it. The teacher was a nice lady who wore a wig, and it didn’t fit well and kept sliding around. I remember that more than I remember the lessons. When I was supposed to practice at home, I managed to read while I poked around at piano with the other hand, so my mom could hear the piano.  My mother eventually gave up.

She didn’t attempt to interest me in another instrument, but when we later lived in Portland for a few years, she found an old lady who gave whistling lessons, who was the sound effects for Hartz Mountain Canaries on the radio. That didn’t take either, and I was always embarrassed about it, and never mentioned it to anyone. And then many years later I learned that there were Whistling Conventions and lots of people took whistling lessons, and competed nationally.  Who knew?

A chance inquiry at a feed store about harness, and how harness worked, led me to a potluck gathering of a group dedicated to preserving  the different breeds of draft horses.  With the advent of modern farm machinery, there’s not much need for draft horses except by Budweiser.The locals brought their horses, and visiting Brits talked about their breeds. I learned about harness, and stone boats, and the organizations all over the world dedicated to preserving species that had gone out of use and out of style. It was fascinating.

I had never focused my attention on materials and their development. I was vaguely aware of new plastics and other substances in the hardware store—but not on materials science as a profession developing new materials to do new things. So after writing that post, a friend asked me if I was familiar with aerogel? Huh?

Aerogel is a synthetic porous ultralight material derived from a gel…, in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas. The result is a solid with extremely low density and low thermal conductivity. This is not new. First created in 1931, according to Wikipedia. First aerogels were produced from silica gels, then alumina, chromia and tin dioxide. Carbon aerogels came in the late 1980s. It is an excellent insulator, and lowest density solid, until eclipsed by graphene aerogel.

A new water-repellant concrete impregnated with tiny superstrong fibers promises to leave roads and bridges free of major cracks for up to 120 years. University of  Wisconsin Milwaukee has developed a concrete mix that is durable and superhydrophobic. (wonderful word) Preventing normally porous concrete from absorbing water means that liquid can’t get inside, freeze and cause it to crack. Cracks fo not form, do not propagate and cause failure. The useful life of typical concrete roads is 30 years and concrete bridges and culverts as 40-45 years. The new material not only repels water, but it can bend. They say it would pay for the increased cost with diminished maintenance costs. (“crumbling roads and bridges”)

A new bone-like material is lighter than water but as strong as steel. Jens Bauer and his colleagues at the Karlsruher Institute of Technology have developed a bone-like material that is less dense than water . but as strong as some forms of steel. This is the first experimental proof that such materials can exist.

All known materials can be represented quite neatly in one chart. Each line means the strength or density of the material goes up ten times.


The line in the middle at 1000kg/m³ is the density of water—all materials to its left are lighter than water and those on the right are heavier. No solid material is lighter than water unless it is porous. Porous materials like wood and bone exhibit exquisite structures when seen under a microscope. Materials scientists can use computer simulations to fill some empty areas on the strength-density chart that theory predicts.

We are now in a molecular age, when scientists can start experimenting at the level of the atom.  Add 3D printing and laser technology, and new super-light materials may mean new skis and aircraft parts, and things heretofore unthought of.


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