Thursday 31 May 2018

My favourite author Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and today I want to write about some technology that fits that description, and more importantly about the person who created that magic.  Of course Arthur meant that technology is only magic to those who don’t understand it, not that it cannot be explained. The huge array of “magical” technology we have available today is due to humanity’s creativity and genius at deciphering the universe and working out how to apply that knowledge.

 

On 10th May Nature published a paper with the title: “Rapid energy-efficient manufacturing of polymers and composites via frontal polymerization” by a team from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois.  Unless you have an extremely good understanding of advanced chemistry and materials science I don’t recommend reading the paper itself but the technology described is incredible.  Essentially it concerns a new way of curing polymers that only requires a quick touch from a small heat source to send a wave of polymerisation through the material.  The significance of this in the real world is in the manufacturing of high performance polymers and composites, materials that are finding growing use in aircraft, automobiles and other applications due to their excellent mechanical and thermal performance and low weight, a characteristic that helps reduce fuel use.

 

In our normal world of energy efficiency we are used to talking about savings of 10-30%, maybe 50-70+% in really impressive cases.  Manufacturing composites is energy intensive and uses large ovens, one US producer reports that curing just one component of a commercial airliner can use 96,000 kWh, equivalent to the annual usage of nine average US homes.  The new technique uses 10 orders of magnitude less energy and can cut production time by two orders of magnitude.  That is what you call real energy savings.

 

The reason I am writing about something that is far outside my expertise is that the lead researcher of this technology was my best friend for many years, Scott White.  Scott passed away on 28th May, taken tragically young by a rare cancer.  Scott accomplished many amazing things in his career – he was the driving force behind the first ever self-healing materials back in 2001, an advance that was reported in the press globally and led to creating a company to exploit the technology, Autonomic Materials Inc.  Essentially the whole field of self-healing materials sprung from his research.

 

I first met Scott in 1979 when I was a student working in the US for a summer selling ice cream.  We were brought together “by chance” because I spotted his parent’s Morris Minor on their drive.  For anyone who does not know a Morris Minor is a classic 1950s British car and needless to say they are very rare in the US, back then I owned one in the UK.  As a result of that car I struck up a conversation with Scott and his parents and that was the start of a rare and life-long friendship.  In the words of another favourite author of mine and Scott’s,  Richard Bach, there is “nothing by chance”.

 

Scott was many things, a true magician in many ways;  the advances in materials science he pioneered have already and will continue to change the world for the better, he was an excellent cook, guitarist, teacher, athlete, parent and friend amongst many other things.  His impact will live on but he will be sorely missed.

 

For a very brief description of Scott’s career see here.

 

For more information on frontal polymerization see here.

 



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Dr Steven Fawkes

Welcome to my blog on energy efficiency and energy efficiency financing. The first question people ask is why my blog is called 'only eleven percent' - the answer is here. I look forward to engaging with you!

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