There is a material that many of use on a daily basis, whether we know it or not, in applications ranging from seat comfort to insulation to sending a package. This material is foam, which is a distinct category but one that also contains massive variety. The foam that you sleep on is different from the stuff that keeps a building warm and dry, which is also different from the suds that form when you wash your hands, and is also a far cry from what you pour out of a shaken-up keg of beer.
However, these incarnations are united by a common theme, according to Encyclopedia Britannica: "A dispersion of particles in a continuous medium in which gas bubbles are the particles." The medium can be any of a variety of solids or liquids. Scientifically speaking, both the lather of your shaving cream and the solid cylinder you use to roll your muscles after a workout are examples of foam.
"Memory foam went from NASA to your mattress."
Clearly, "foam" is too broad a label to describe a given example with any degree of specificity. Still, many folks know foam by the agent used to trap the gas bubbles. Consider polyurethane foam, known better by the moniker "spray foam insulation." Similarly, party hosts often hand out polystyrene foam next to the punch bowl – a.k.a., Styrofoam cups. In materials science, foam is a source of innovation and curiosity. Its potential remains untapped, but recent developments are beginning to up the ante. To contextualize this new research, think about the success of memory foam – a material that went from NASA to your mattress.
Memory foam was a breakthrough material
Every time you lay down on your memory foam mattress or pillow, you should thank NASA. According to Gizmag, the space agency created memory foam in 1966 as a way to provide astronauts with a cushier ride, protect them from vibrations and help minimize damage during potential accidents. By the 70s, NASA had outfitted its Space Shuttle seats and other areas that could use extra padding. The material was heat- and pressure-sensitive, allowing it to conform to a variety of body types. It was also effective – three inches of memory foam can absorb the impact of an average adult falling 10 feet.
"We crash-tested several seats at the Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City to validate them for impact survival, and we found the foam was good for 36 Gs," co-inventor Chuck Kubokawa said during the 1989 Space Hall of Fame ceremony. "The seat can out-survive the aircraft in a crash."
Since the 60s, the material has undergone some tinkering, but remained largely the same. Now that it's widely available for production, a number of organizations have included it in products ranging from bedding to shoes to archery targets. But it also helped to make the public aware of foam as a material that might impact their lives in more direct, meaningful ways than they had previously thought. Now, new research could take that realization a step further.
New foam invention could be the next big thing
At Florida State University's High Performance Materials Institute, memory foam is great and all, but auxetic foam is the real deal. That's according to Changchun Zeng, the inventor who hopes his product will soon alleviate some of the shortcomings in the marketplace through a licensing agreement with Auxedyne LLC, reported the Tallahassee Democrat.
"We know what is not working with current products and technology, and what it is going to take to make it better," Zeng told the news source. "For example, the socks that amputees currently use to attach prosthetic devices do not adjust to limb shape and volume, creating lots of problems. My invention solves those issues."
How exactly does it solve those issues? Most elastic materials get thinner as they stretch longer – a concept most of us have accepted as irrefutable fact. But auxetic foam gets thicker as it stretches, behaving in a way that is hard to imagine and completely counter-intuitive. However, this dynamic behavior would make the material ideal for athletics wear and other applications that could benefit from an adaptable, tight-fitting fabric. After adequate material analysis from an accredited analytical laboratory, auxetic foam could soon show up in hockey, football and lacrosse pads.
"I'm a hockey player myself, so I know personally the importance of protective gear that can safely absorb a hit and still let me compete at the top of my game," Joseph Condon, president of Auxadyne LLC, told the Tallahasee Democrat. "This new foam technology will do that by being a higher performing and safer product."
It might be difficult to imagine a material that not only maintains its strength when stretched, but actually gets thicker. But consider how bizarre memory foam must have seemed when it was first developed – a material that will return to its original shape even after a 90 percent compression. This latest development may well become another example of how material science can turn our expectations on their head.