One of the areas of engineering that is always changing and looking for room for improvement is in materials. The 20th century has gone through an abundance of changes spurring from the industrial revolution and into the technology and information age. During this course of time we have come up with Nylon, new metal alloys, and maybe most notably carbon fiber.
Finding new ways to improve our tools, systems, and toys has a large part to do with the materials they are built with. What forces they can stand up to, how long they last through the weathering process and many other variables are constantly tested to improve our way of life.
Up until about one hundred years ago hemp was still being used for clothing, sails on ships and many other applications. This all came to an end with the invention of nylon. Nylon has become an everyday part of our lives. Parachutes are made from nylon, backpacks, clothing, umbrellas, and life jackets – the list is endless. This lightweight and high strength material has been crafted by mankind to stand up to very harsh weather conditions and has proved to be the fabric of the 20th century.
Nylon was invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers at DuPont’s research facility. Some of its most early uses were for women’s stalking’s and for the bristles in a toothbrush. This material is so adaptable that new inventions are still being created to this day with Nylon as the exclusive material being used.
New metal alloys are also still being discovered to this day. Very popular are aluminum alloys for their attractive properties of being lightweight and durable. Metals are now surrounding us everywhere we go. Skyscrapers owe all of their glory to steel allowing them to be erected at heights as far as the eye can see. We are still building up, making buildings taller than the one previous.
Steel rebar and steel trusses have supported our structures for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come, or at least until a new metal alloy is invented or discovered.
One of the most impressive materials mankind has been able to fabricate is carbon fiber. I felt that much of this article owed some explanation and information on this material. Carbon fiber is for the most part “expensive string.” Able to withstand four times the stress as steel and only being a fraction of the weight.
Carbon fiber is a relatively newer material compared to the ones mentioned above as far as its applications go, but its impact will be much more aggressive. It has made its biggest home in the vehicles we use for transportation. Drive shafts for airplanes, complete body frames for cars, and a countless number of small parts for just about anything. Its strength comes from our ability to align carbon atoms in parallel crystal form.
Several thousand of these carbon fibers are wound together to form a tiny strand that will be used with many others. The strength to volume ratio of this material has stamped its place as another one of mankind’s great inventions.
The materials discussed in this article merely brush the surface of materials we have created over the last hundred years. Many more articles would be needed to cover silicon and its applications in electronics for instance. New materials have allowed us to invent, revolutionize, and create entire new industries from their existence.
Nick Quinlan is an electrical engineer that works out of Orlando, FL. He is constantly researching and learning about new and emerging technologies that have and will continue to change our lives. He has been creating content for Find A Fax, which uses new technology to deliver fax services to its clients.