"Necessity is the father of invention," so the saying goes. While I don't personally hold with broad sweeping generalizations, it has to be said that many of the materials innovations that drive and enable our modern world have been driven by demand, need or circumstance. Examples of this range from the glass that protects and allows our phones to have dazzling displays to the batteries that power our mobile computers, pacemakers and surgical implants that enable people to have a good quality of life. Also there are non-stick cooking pans, energy efficient compact fluorescent and led lights, artificial sweeteners, advanced anti-irritant or skin-whitening cosmetics and creams, and new medical treatments.
Sometimes I think that we take for granted all the advanced science and materials that enable us to for example to cross almost half the world with relative comfort and safety. To land in a cold location with appropriate clothing to keep us comfortable and safe. To get there in a reasonable amount of time, and at a reasonable price in safety. To have available a car which starts and continues to function and to be able to call home to our families.
I was musing on this as I drank my cup of coffee and considering instant coffee. I am, and I admit it, a coffee snob. I like my coffee, I like it a certain way and so for many years while travelling I have had a constant vigil and hunt for coffee that is to my liking. With the spread of coffee chains globally, this is an easier problem, however I still I really like taking my coffee with me. This can be done with certain brands, and I remembered how instant coffee was actually invented by Dr. Hans Morgenthaler in 1938 for Nestle, but only became popularised by the American GIs in the Second World War, where weight and space were at a premium. The same issues of space and weight apply to so many things in the modern world, and as I planned my trip to winter-bound Europe, I wondered about these innovations. Of course the fact that now I can have decaffeinated coffee with caramel and that it can come in hot and cold varieties as well as a myriad range of flavors and specialty choices is all due to technical and formulation advances and the advent of new packages, processes and capabilities.
For my journey to Europe, I first needed a warm coat. Historically when people explored cold places they used large bulky coats and large heavy woolen gloves. Now, with the advent of high performance fibers such as those used in GoreTex where the body is maintained dry and sweat free yet the material can breathe and perspire without any snow or rain entering, I can have a lightweight jacket which is wearable, in the color I want and that lasts well when out hiking or mountain biking. So in went my hiking jacket, a smart choice because recently the UK has had one of the wettest periods of weather ever. Next, it was which bag to choose to pack my gear in. Suitcases and rolling bags or carriers have in the last decade changed due to polymers, plastics and composites out of all recognition. They have become lighter, more resistant to abrasion and damage. They have become more colorful and easier to open due to advanced plastic zippers and expandable sections. In addition, the new complex materials allow the wheels to roll more smoothly and to be honest, don't break with the frequency that the older ones did. Again, the materials technology that resists such impacts with flexible deformation and includes a smoothly lubricated bearing is really quite remarkable.
The next stage in my thoughts was about which route to take for my journey. This, as anyone knows in the winter is not a simple choice. It involved juggling which airports get snowed-in or have bad weather. Which (if any) airports can cope? What de-icing equipment and provisioning each has and what the cost might be. The issue of de-icing, which is basically removing the ice and coating the airplane with a complex formulation or mixture to prevent the onset of ice crystals is very complex. This is necessary since the buildup of ice crystals can rob a plane of its lift and control, which is not a desired state. The coating, however, has a whole series of design constraints that govern it. For example, it must be deployed easily and in low temperatures, and it must not damage the plane (for composite modern aircraft such as the Dreamliner this is harder than it would appear). It must be non-toxic, not affect passengers with allergies, be environmentally benign and of low cost. These are not easily balanced requirements for a formulated product that has to remain stable for extended periods of time, and like many advanced chemical products, it must be produced or deployed in many different locations with high frequency.
Of course I also wondered about the composite materials used in the airplane. Those made by advanced manufacturing and materials companies such as Boeing, have many different and diverse requirements. They need to be able to stand the intense cold at altitude, and function for extended periods of time. Airplanes spend more time flying than they do on the ground. They need to survive lightning strikes, rain, hail, de-icing fluids and the many different sources of external impact. In addition their whole raison d'etre (lighter weight), better fuel per passenger performance needs to be enabled and provided. The fuel for airplanes (Jet A1) needs to be of high purity, consistent quality and not affected by the fluctuation in temperatures from 35,000 feet in the air to ground. This product involves very careful chemical processing design and administration. Companies such as BP Aviation and other aircraft fuel providers spend a lot of time managing the changing feed and input streams to yield consistent and constant products, as well as tracking lot to lot quality. They must also have stringent product safety and testing requirements.
Once I got to my destination, I expected to find a rental car that started and ran, and that would allow me to be transported to my hotel of choice, where I would be warm and safe in my well lit and heated room. Those simple common travel steps I realised are all triumphs of materials science, innovation and design. The fact that my car also has a fuel that can flow and burn consistently in low temperatures is amazing. The petrochemical companies actually adjust the ratios of different chemistries in winter, and summer fuels to aid burning and volatility in low temperatures. In some cases such as for diesel fuel, which can gel or almost freeze in low temperatures, they add specific pour point depressant additives and viscosity improvement additives. The same of course occurs for engine lubricating oil, which due to modern synthetic materials can have such a wide range of viscosities that people do not need to switch from a winter to summer oil and back again.
The battery of my rental has a unit which converts the electrochemical potential of the battery into current that drives my starter motor. It must function at high load when the whole car is probably at it coldest, and so again it’s a complex piece of chemical, materials and electrical engineering. In hybrid or electrical vehicles, this is an even more necessary situation. Finally, I consider the tires, which hopefully would keep me on the road. These materials which have actually a very small area in contact with the ground, whether it be asphalt, slush, snow or gravel, need to function in all seasons and in a whole different range of temperatures, irrespective of load and speed. Tires which are a significant contributor to the vehicles overall energy use, have to be engineered to have the right performance characteristics while maintaining safety and keeping costs, noise and performance within bounds and managed.
At the hotel, I hoped I would find a warm, well-lit room in the evenings with plenty of hot water. This requires ability to insulate the building and manage its heat loss, and to distribute electricity in very cold or warm temperatures for cooling or lighting. The ability to distribute natural gas is a triumph of modern science and materials development – natural gas is hard to find and harder to produce. Another critical development for the growing planet from a sustainability perspective is reducing the energy burden for housing. Building development with advanced materials, such as self-cleaning glass and lightweight insulation removes the need for excessive air conditioning or heating. Other amazing uses of advanced materials technology are low energy bulbs that use less energy, provide excellent light for reading, and can be easily recycled.
As I finished my planning for the trip at the beginning of the year, I wondered what would change in 2013 and how travellers in the future would see things when they too reflect on the things that go unnoticed but make all of their travelling so much easier.