3M, Invisibility Cloak and the Gold Shoe

Landing in Minnesota. It's very green.

I visited 3M earlier this week. The company wanted to showcase its work in the renewable energy field. I wanted to be wowed. Material science is so interesting, and researchers and engineers who get to manipulate materials and create interesting products are like magicians to me.

I wish I were more interested in chemistry when I was in high school because just about everything I write has something to do with it. But the only thing that stood out in my memory of high school chemistry was the teacher who told us to call him Dr. Shannon because he had a Ph.D. I thought he was real pompous. And the class was just boring.

The visit to 3M wasn’t boring. Before the day tour, 3M gave each of us a press packet. Here were a few things on the “fact sheet” about the headquarters near St. Paul, Minnesota that stood out:

  • Acreage: 417
  • Buildings: 413
  • M has its own ZIP code

We were mostly confined to this large, airy building with massive glass windows covered with – what else? – 3M films for reflecting UV and infrared light and keeping the interior cool. The company built this center four years ago to showcase some of its R&D efforts and accomplishments. There is an Exploratorium with several dozen stations for demonstrating different technologies, and you get to play with some interesting inventions. 3M is the kingpin of optical films and adhesives. With our hands, we tried to tear a sticky, thin strip of foam, which is used to bind giant glass windows to the exterior of skyscrapers. That stuff was tough – I couldn’t break it.

It was during a demonstration about how 3M folks are expert manipulators of light that I thought about the research on creating an invisibility cloak. So I asked about it. I mentioned a U.K. study on the subject. I mentioned Harry Potter.

“Mmmm … interesting,” said the guy giving the demo.

“We wouldn’t talk about it even if we are working on it,” interjected the second 3M exec.

On the way back to a conference room to hear more presentations about renewable energy, we stopped by a glass case containing a gold shoe. The shoe was made with a light-weight material embedded with 24-karat gold. It belonged to a pair made for sprinter Michael Johnson to wear in the 2000 Olympics. Johnson wanted to run barefoot. His sponsor, Nike, didn’t like the idea. So Johnson asked for gold shoes. 3M developed the material, and Nike made 10 pairs for the athlete.

Our tour guide said a 3M material was used for making boots worn by Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon in 1969. The company wanted one boot for its display. But NASA couldn’t find the boots anymore.

It was all fun to learn about 3M, but I didn’t forget why I was there. 3M ran a poster session to show us some of its research and product development. Like many corporate giants such as GE, 3M wants a nice slice of the solar market. The company has lots of resources, but of course, that doesn’t mean its products will do well. I’m working on a story about a reflective film for concentrating solar thermal. The company is revisiting this material after the market for it fizzled about 2 decades ago.

Meanwhile, Renewable Energy World today published my article looking at whether copper-indium-gallium-selenide thin film makers are finally a force to be reckon with.

UPDATE: More reading for you! Here is my story on replacing glass mirrors with the metal variety for solar thermal power plants.

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