At one time
stereotyped thinking helped mankind survive: thanks to it kernels of acquired
knowledge could take hold and be passed down from generation to generation. At
the dawn of human civilization this was crucial. However, now stereotyped ways
of thinking are considered one of the greatest bars to progress, and for good
reason: creating something radically new is only possible if we look beyond our
Today we will try to destroy a few of these stereotypes by taking a look at extraordinary uses for ordinary materials.
Mankind made the first ships from wood, which is to be expected: wood doesn’t sink in water and is easily manipulated. Later steel was used. This was a major step forward, since steel is a material that is significantly heavier than water. But can you imagine a ship made completely from concrete? The very phrase “concrete ship” is enough to make one smile, and immediately conjures up images of sinking sterns. Nevertheless, concrete ships were constructed for a fairly long time, and successfully carried out the tasks entrusted to them.
A boat made of cement applied to a rebar frame was first constructed by the Frenchman Joseph-Louis Lambot in 1848 – which was, curiously, 19 years before another Frenchman, Joseph Monier, received a patent for reinforced concrete. Lambot’s boat caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. Three boats, one of which remained in service for nearly fifty years, were built to Lambot’s patented design. Later on a small number of similar concrete boats and sailing yachts were built in Europe and America.
This type of transport became widely used thanks to Norwegian engineer Nicolay Fougner, who in 1917 built a self-propelled sea-going ship from reinforced concrete. The Americans followed Fougner’s example, and built a similar cargo steamer. These ships proved to be more durable than those made from wood or metal. Winter’s ice posed them no threat, and it was much easier to patch holes in their hulls. Significantly, workers with no knowledge of shipbuilding could be used to construct and repair these concrete ships.
No special qualifications were needed to build concrete ships. The most ordinary of builders could make and repair them.
During the First World War American president Woodrow Wilson approved the construction of 24 ships made from reinforced concrete. However, by the end of the war only 12 of the ships, worth a total of 50 million dollars, had been completed. Concrete ships built in the early 20th century were mainly used as oil tankers, but they also performed well as transports of dry materials such as sugar, since they were not subject to condensation, from which steel ships suffer. The length of concrete ships ranged from 125 to 132 meters, and they weighed from 3700 to 4200 metric tons. Their average length of service, however, was short – five to ten years. This was due to the fact that in serious collisions they suffered serious damages, often sinking right away. The cargo ship Cape Fear, launched in 1919, collided with another vessel in 1920 and reportedly sank beneath the waves with its 19-member crew in less than three minutes. If a damaged ship did not sink, repair was often deemed pointless, and it was simply written off. The concrete San Pasqual, on the other hand, is still afloat as a cozy hotel in Cuba. Built in 1920, it was initially used as an oil tanker, then as a store ship, then as a lookout for German submarines during World War II. During the Cuban Revolution Che Guevara used the vessel as a prison. Later it housed sporting and fishing clubs.
During World War II concrete shipbuilding gained new momentum. The USA’s steel shortage led to the appearance of 24 concrete ships and 80 concrete barges. Vessels of this new generation were lighter and sturdier than their predecessors. They were built at a very rapid pace – a ship a month. The ships were intended for short-term use, the expectation being that many would be destroyed by German submarines. Two of the ships were sunk as barriers during the Allied landings at Normandy.
The SS Atlantus is one of the most famous concrete ships. Built by the Americans during a period of emergency preparation for the First World War, it became the world’s second concrete ship.
After finishing its term of service, the S.S. Atlаntus became a draw for divers. When a person died after diving from the ship, a warning sign was put up on shore. Later the ship split in two.
of the ships built during that time have survived. Seven of them are still
afloat in Powell River, British Columbia, where they constitute an enormous
breakwater. Another ship to survive the war, the Quartz, is famous for its
participation in Operation Crossroads, the American atomic bomb tests conducted
in 1946. A group of several ships that included the Quartz was placed at the
center of the blast to measure the degree of damage inflicted by a nuclear
The barge Quartz took part in some of the first atomic bombing tests – in 1946 it was placed at the center of a nuclear blast.
During the years of the Second World War steel was also in short supply in the Soviet Union, where specialists also made ships from concrete. One example of a well-preserved concrete ship can be seen in the port of Riga – the Voleri. The ship is still afloat and its external appearance has changed very little, although it now lacks a deckhouse. Concrete ships can also be found in Russia: in Vyborg there is a concrete launch on the shore, not far from the castle; two German concrete barges are laid up on the shore of the bay in the town of Mamonovo in Kaliningrad Oblast; another concrete ship has been preserved on the Luga River – it is most likely a German lighter of 1920s design. The Nizhniy Novgorod yacht club uses a concrete motor sailing yacht, the Nefertiti, built in the early 1970s, currently the only preserved concrete sailing ship in the Volga River basin. The yacht accommodates up to 16 people, has a displacement of 11 metric tonnes, and a length of 12.5 meters, which allows her to take long voyages.
After 1920 the S.S. Sapona served as a cargo ship. In 1926 the ship was caught in a storm and suffered such severe damage that its owners did not bother repairing her.
After World War II concrete began to be used in shipbuilding mainly for floating oil reservoirs, as well as to create drilling platforms and floating piers. For example, in 1975 a concrete LNG tanker with a cargo capacity of 60,000 tonnes was constructed. It is still in service on the Java Sea.
Over time experience in concrete ship construction showed that building with concrete made more economic sense with certain types of ship. These were mostly harbor utility vessels: ferries, lighters, scows, flat-bottomed boats, and various types of barges. Whereas ships of metal construction are subject to rust and require constant care, concrete ships for all practical purposes do not deteriorate over time and require less repair work. In addition, concrete ships can be built cheaper and faster, while their sturdiness is comparable to that of steel-construction ships. Using concrete to build ships that are in constant motion, however, is not profitable today. Concrete vessels are heavier than steel ones, so providing a cargo capacity comparable to that of steel ships requires greater dimensions, which leads to increased towing resistance (requiring more powerful engines) and makes their use on small waterways more difficult – among other things, it makes moving them through canals and canal locks impossible. But the fact remains the same: using concrete to build ships is certainly possible.
One of the few concrete ships still extant. Voleri at a berth in the port of Riga.
And now we turn our attention to medieval China, where we find the workshop of Shang Suiding, who is working on new armor for the Chinese army. Do you think he’ll use the conventional material – metal?
Of course not. Shang Suiding is considered the inventor of paper armor. The book Tang Shu Xu Shang Zhuang relates how for the Battle of Huotong General Xi Shang from Shaanxi province ordered that thousands of his soldiers be clad in paper armor. Soon paper armor was officially recognized as a cheap and practical form of defense. In 1040 roughly thirty thousand sets of paper armor were prepared for troops who stopped in the cities of Guangnang and Huinang (in Anguo province), famed for their paper industry. The protection offered by this armor was so great that they withstood blows from swords and spears, while arrows, even powerful ones, could not pierce it. By many criteria they were even better than leather or metal armor, and were valued more highly. We know that in the 12th century judge Chen De-Xiu asked the central authorities to exchange 100 sets of metal armor for 50 sets of armor from the finest paper. During the Ming dynasty this type of armor was worn by garrisons defending the shores of southern China from Japanese invasions.
The Chinese and Japanese especially valued paper armor made in Korea for its strength and durability. The ancient Koreans used ten or fifteen layers of specially sewn- and glued-together papers made from mulberry trees (gabuiji) to make their armor, called jigab. To increase its strength, the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree was applied to layers of gabuiji horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. The gabuiji were then dried in the sun. In Dongguk Yeoji Seungram (“Survey of the National Geography of Korea”), written in the 15th century, it was noted that gabuiji paper armor protected warriors from arrows and was no weaker than iron. There are accounts of such armor even withstanding musket balls.
Even in our day researchers have compared paper armor with that made from steel. It turned out that the ancient sources weren’t lying. While only half the weight of iron armor, paper armor for all practical purposes matched its protective qualities. Steel had an advantage only against firearms made after the early 19th century.
Our next example of creative use of materials is a triumph of Soviet engineering. What is usually used as a coolant? Air, water, Freon, oil, or something along those lines. But how about using molten lead?
Nuclear power plants with liquid metal coolant were a uniquely Soviet technical solution, used nowhere else in the world. Fast-neutron reactors with sodium and mercury coolant were developed for atomic power plants. Soviet engineers created nuclear power plants with sodium-potassium coolant for spacecraft. Bismuth lead was used as coolant for the reactors of the nuclear-powered submarines of Proekt 705, given the Soviet codename Lira (Russian for “lyre”) and known by the NATO designation Alfa. The concept for Proekt 705 formed in the late 1950s. The designers were given the task of creating a compact, highly maneuverable “underwater interceptor” with an incredible underwater speed of over 40 knots (approx. 80 kilometers/hour). A special decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the head designer, Mikhail Rusanov, allowed him to violate the existing standards and rules of shipbuilding while designing the submarine.
To satisfy the demands of the client, it was first of all necessary to create a very powerful but compact power supply. A fast-neutron reactor with molten metal coolant was chosen because it was safer, offered a greater power-to-weight ratio, and was more compact than a water-to-water reactor. The fast-neutron reactor reduced the submarine’s displacement by 300 metric tons. The use of molten metal as a coolant meant the primary coolant system could be kept at low pressure, which made a thermal explosion of the nuclear reactor and the external emission of radiation impossible, as well as enabling the power plant to be quickly put on full power. Thanks to this feature Alfa-class submarines could reach top speed in less than a minute. This high speed enabled the submarine to quickly enter the blind spot of any submarine or surface ship or escape pursuing enemies and even most anti-submarine torpedoes. In only 42 seconds the submarine could turn 180° and begin moving in the opposite direction.
The Alfa class’s power plant was ahead of its time by nearly half a century. However, that also meant the submarine required special handling – the reactor’s primary coolant circuit had to always be kept in a hot condition of no less than 120° C. Otherwise the coolant would have solidified, and the entire 155 megawatt power plant would have turned into a hulk of radioactive metal. Over the project’s lifespan of over 20 years that happened twice, in both cases due to accidents, but no one died and no submarines were lost.
The Alfa class was practically invulnerable to the weapons of the time, which changed the way the Americans thought about the submarine fleet and anti-submarine measures. The last of the class was retired from service in 1997. To this day the Alfa class remains the only serially-produced submarine with liquid metal reactor coolant. Only one another submarine, also of Soviet design, attained a higher speed – the second-generation nuclear submarine K-162 (renamed the K-222 in 1978, also known as the sole ship in the Papa-class, its NATO reporting name.)
In conclusion, a few words on fuel. Surprisingly, many specialists say that the fuel of the future might be something we’re used to thinking of as a construction material – aluminum. Can you imagine? You throw a few empty Coca-Cola cans into the tank of your car and it runs on that! The prototypes of such cars and the necessary engines have already been developed.
In 2011 Aleix Llovet and Xavier Salueña from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia created a radio-controlled model car that runs on drink can tabs. The tabs are put in the “fuel tank” – a container with water and sodium hydroxide. In an aqueous solution of caustic alkali the aluminum dissolves, producing hydrogen. The gas produced goes through filters installed in the car: first through a filter with vinegar and water to remove sodium hydroxide traces, and then through a silica gel, which removes the water. The purified hydrogen enters the fuel cell, producing a current. The alkali that builds up in the filter is once again sent into the system, where it is reused. The system’s exhaust consists of two completely non-toxic substances – aluminum hydroxide, which can be easily transformed into aluminum oxide, and a residue of sodium acetate in the vinegar filter. Sodium acetate is widely used as a preservative, and the aluminum oxide can be used to produce pure aluminum. The Israeli company Alchemy Research has even created a reactor that runs on aluminum powder. In the reactor, aluminum heated to 900° Celsius reacts with water to form hydrogen and aluminum oxide. The hydrogen produced can be used as fuel for fuel cells; the heat is used to keep the temperature in the reactor high, and waste in the form of aluminum oxide can be reprocessed into aluminum. Calculations suggest that an automobile with such a reactor and a fuel tank the size of a conventional gas tank could travel approximately 2,400 kilometers, with refueling taking only a few minutes.
Russian researchers from the Unified Institute of High Temperatures at the Russian Academy of Sciences have also joined in, turning an American Gem-car EL electric golfcart into an aluminum-powered vehicle. Here small aluminum discs, which are loaded into special cassettes, are used as fuel. A special pump forces a caustic alkali through these cassettes, generating electricity and heat. The heat can be used to heat the passenger compartment, and the electricity goes to charge the Li-ion batteries that power the engine. One fuelling includes 44 aluminum discs, which weigh four kilograms, providing enough fuel to travel 380 kilometers in the city. After the aluminum discs are exhausted, the vehicle has to be refueled and the electrolytes replenished in the battery. Later 90% of the aluminum can be restored from the waste electrolytes. Taking into account the cost of aluminum (about two dollars per kilogram) and alkali, the cost of a trip in a vehicle like this is approximately one ruble [roughly 3 American cents at the time of writing – translator’s note] per kilometer in the city, which is even less than with gasoline.