Science is incredible. From the tiniest compounds studied in biotechnology to the furthest reaches of outer space, it often seems the only limit to what we can discover is our imagination! This week we look at success of a different kind – the most amazing materials in the world, how they were discovered, and their applications.
Scientists noticed the lotus plant never gets dirty, or even wet, despite growing in muddy areas. Study of the plant led them to discover how to create “superhydrophobic” material – something which is nearly impervious to water.
This kind of discovery has a wide range of applications – from clothing that cannot get wet, to smartphones which can’t be water damaged, to kitchen implements that never need to be cleaned…and more.
Metal With A Memory
Made of nickel and titanium, nitanol has a “memory” of its original form. It snaps back to that original form, no matter what shape it was put into.
Nitanol was discovered by accident, so to speak, in 1959 by William J. Bueler and Frederick Wang at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. (The “-NOL” at the end of the name stands for Naval Ordnance Laboratory.) They were trying to make a better missile nose cone, when they hit upon the nickel-titanium alloy.
Nitanol can be used to create an almost perpetual engine – simply supply two sides with different temperature liquid, and the memory property of the nitanol will fuel motion.
The Terminator Metal
A discussion about amazing materials would be lacking without mentioning the “Terminator metal.” Gallium is a non toxic metal that is a liquid at room temperature. It is a ton of fun to play with (though also rather expensive). Gallium was predicted before it was discovered in physical form; Dmitri Mendeleev predicted its existence and named it eka-aluminum (because it would be below aluminum on the periodic table). Gallium was physcially discovered by Paul Lecoq de Boisbaudran in 1875. The name “gallium” comes from the Latin “Gallia,” which means France.
Gallium is also used as a mercury substitute (mercury is highly toxic) in thermometers, for body scans, mirrors, and is an ingredient in solar panels. Gallium reacts with other metals, such as aluminum and titanium, to make them brittle. Below is a padlock made of titanium – watch it splinter apart when gallium is introduced.
Pykrete is the brainchild of an eccentric inventor named Geoffrey Pyke. Pyke was a member of Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations staff during World War 2. His ideas were usually hard to implement, but his genius in thinking outside the box was a boon for the war efforts.
Pyke suggested a mixture of 1 part sawdust and 5 parts ice as a material to make a supersized aircraft carrier named Habakkuk for the British during World War 2. His idea was never put to the test by the British Navy, but pykrete remains an intriguing material for scientists to think about.
Magnetic Thinking Putty
Magic thinking putty is a different than the other amazing materials here, because it is really just a simple mixture. To make magnetic thinking putty, all you need to do is add ferric iron oxide powder to silly putty. The things you can do with this are more fun than helpful, but it’s still a really cool substance!