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Nuclear-Blast Resistant, and Also Hard to Negotiate Over.
June 11, 2011 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Starlite: Ineffective for Car Bonnets, Great Against Nuclear Blasts. In the late 1980s, an English amateur inventor and hair-dresser released a plastic which, he claimed, had unusual heat-resistant properties. BBC Television demonstrated the material, dubbed Starlite, keeping an egg cool despite a five-minute onslaught from a blowtorch; here the inventor provides links to the footage. After initial skepticism, the reception from industrial and military players was rapturous. But while Starlite apparently stood up to the heat of 10000 Celsius lasers, its inventor, wary of being cheated, proved equally stubborn in negotiation, and Starlite seems never have been brought to market or mass production.

Though the early flurry of publicity led to negotiations with various defense contractors and chemical firms; a NASA spokesman was quoted as saying, 'We have done a lot of evaluation and … we know all the tremendous possibilities that this material has'; and an SAS team reportedly escorted a sample to an apparently successful test of Starlite against nuclear blasts at the White Sands nuclear testing range in June of 1991, no contracts are publicly known to have been finalized with the inventor, who is often described as "eccentric". (Conspiracy theories do, of course, exist.) Twenty years on, Starlite seems to have faded away.
posted by darth_tedious (62 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sounds like the British counterpart to Troy Hurtubise, AKA that guy who made a bear-proof suit.
posted by greatgefilte at 1:36 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


20 years on, his elegibility for a patent has expired. Anyone interested in the stuff can now give him the finger.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:37 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


imipolex g?
posted by supermedusa at 1:39 PM on June 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


Others are convinced that the only possible reason Starlite was never commercialized is that it was an elaborate hoax all along.

The story of Starlite does fit the profile of crank science remarkably well. An outsider inventor somehow creates a miracle material that appears to defy physical laws, but after years of interest nothing ever seems to come of it.
posted by JHarris at 1:40 PM on June 11, 2011


20 years on, his elegibility for a patent has expired.

Wait, he never patented it?? This is exactly the kind of thing patents should be used for!
posted by JHarris at 1:41 PM on June 11, 2011


JHarris, I don't know if he did or not. If he did, it's now expired. If he didn't, he's lost his chance. Either way, it's public domain.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:50 PM on June 11, 2011


Wait, what? So... he never patented it... but he was a stubborn negotiator... so it was never used?

This is ridiculous. I guess maybe the British industrial system works on some kind of honor code where they won't use an invention without the agreement of the inventor, but over here on the other side of the water an unpatented miracle plastic would have been snatched up immediately by somebody or other.

Put me down in the "crank science that actually doesn't work" column.
posted by koeselitz at 1:50 PM on June 11, 2011


It's clearly a case of the Curse of Tomorrow's World. Anything great that appeared on that show would be doomed to failure.

Wouldn't Starlite be an unpublished trade secret? It's not protected, but equally, has never been disclosed so can't be in the public domain.
posted by scruss at 1:52 PM on June 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


This redlines my bullshit-sense. The stuff, as described, seems to have some of the characteristics of Captain America's shield, but lots easier to make. If this stuff has the properties that he claims, he would have "disappeared" for a week, after which he'd sign anything the military put in front of him.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:54 PM on June 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Are supermaterials similar or the equivalent of this the reason why it can be claimed that the new Russian Bulava submarine launched ballistic missile's warhead can withstand a nuclear blast targeted against it at 500m range?
I'm no scientist or engineer and was curious if that claim was credible.
posted by Bwithh at 1:56 PM on June 11, 2011


20 years on, his elegibility for a patent has expired.

If the process has never been made known, I don't think the patent timer has started running. IANAL, but he should still be able to get a patent today and have protection for 20 years. Or he could keep it a trade secret, and theoretically profit from it indefinitely— if Starlite is real, then I assume that's his motivation for not patenting it. Odd that the article doesn't touch on this.
posted by hattifattener at 2:04 PM on June 11, 2011


C'mon you skeptical Mefites - - anything called Starlite has gotta be great!
posted by fairmettle at 2:11 PM on June 11, 2011


Put me down in the "crank science that actually doesn't work" column.
posted by koeselitz at 1:50 PM on June 11 [+] [!]

If it doesn't work, then how do you explain the demonstrations where it clearly does?
posted by kcds at 2:12 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, in other self-taught materials scientist baffles the establishment news, this time with a lower crackpot index.
posted by hattifattener at 2:13 PM on June 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


If it doesn't work, then how do you explain the demonstrations where it clearly does?

I have no idea whether this material is real or not (however the inventor's reluctance to go into production leads to a great deal of skepticism) but to answer your question: Google Uri Geller.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:15 PM on June 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


If this stuff has the properties that he claims, he would have "disappeared" for a week, after which he'd sign anything the military put in front of him.

I know it's fun to think of this, but thankfully our countries don't actually work this way.

If it doesn't work, then how do you explain the demonstrations where it clearly does?

It fits the profile of crank science well enough that it's enough to start looking for other explanations, perhaps corruption among the testing orgs. I mean the man's over 70 now, at this rate he'll finally earn his big payday only to pass it along to his heirs.
posted by JHarris at 2:17 PM on June 11, 2011


A few observations:
1- no control egg is shown. The initial temperature of the egg and the substance is not documented.
2- ever boil an egg, it takes many minutes to hard boil an egg.
3- from the photos park of the egg white is solid.
4-the eggs were exposed to the torch for 5 and 12. Seconds in two tests, but it isn't clear if we see the results from both eggs
5-Creme brûlée also maintains it's goey softness underneath the hardened shell on top despite attacks from a torch.

A few experiments to try under the fume hood:
-a control egg no coating
-modeling clay
-several coats of stove paint
-silly putty
-fiberglass
-aluminum foil
-silicone aerogel
posted by humanfont at 2:28 PM on June 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


> heat of 10000 Celsius lasers

Correction:

1) "Light-energy sources that simulated a nuclear-flash, equivalent to a temperature of 10,000 C", test at Britain's Atomic Weapon Establishment at Foulness;

2) "...Pulsed with lasers that would normally have burned through polymer", test at Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, Malvern.

"Light-energy sources" probably refers to lasers, since they seem to be used in nuke simulations, but I just thought I'd distinguish these two different tests.
posted by darth_tedious at 2:36 PM on June 11, 2011


The trade secret would indeed never have been publicly disclosed.

The demonstrations do not count for this under English law (Synthon v Smith Kline Beecham Plc, 2005) as patent prior art must both:

disclose the invention which has been patented as claim 1 of the patent; and
do so enough that an ordinary skilled man in the art (materials science here) would be able to create the disclosed invention if he attempted to so by using the disclosed matter and common general knowledge ("enablement").

In this case the demonstrations are arguably not full disclosure, but are certainly apparently no enablement since nobody has been able to reproduce the product (publicly at least).

It is thus still a patentable invention, and he may sit on it until independent reinvention or the end of the universe.

I am not your lawyer.

I am not your lawyer.
posted by jaduncan at 2:37 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Tomorrow's World clip the article and OP link to is amazing. Not only is the most Look Around You thing ever, it also includes Peter Macann wandering around the studio with a blowtorch, setting fire to things like a well-manicured pyromaniac. They also seem to have brought an entire fighter jet into the studio for a mere handful of shots.

Early 90s BBC: so much better than its modern iteration.
posted by hnnrs at 2:51 PM on June 11, 2011


JHarris, I don't know if he did or not. If he did, it's now expired. If he didn't, he's lost his chance. Either way, it's public domain.

Hmmm....no.

4-the eggs were exposed to the torch for 5 and 12. Seconds in two tests, but it isn't clear if we see the results from both eggs

5 minutes. I like creme brulee too but this is something different. I find it particularly interesting that his legal representation (mentioned in the Telegraph article) is Mishcon De Reya - they are probably the UK's premier IP law firm. I'm familiar with the labs mentioned in the article too. If he's a fraud, then he's a spectacularly skillful one.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:52 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anigbrowl the screen caps from the test say seconds not minutes
--Test 1
--Test 2

Perhaps there is a different test.
posted by humanfont at 3:03 PM on June 11, 2011


This is one of those areas of patent law which can have some surprising pitfalls. The question would be whether the public demonstrations of Starlite constituted a "public use" as it is understood in patent law. This is less straightforward than it seems. In Europe, as jaduncan points out, it would only be considered a "public use" if the disclosure had, at least theoretically, enabled the skilled person to reverse-engineer the invention without too much trouble. In the US, on the other hand, even a if the invention was in a "black box" while it was being demonstrated, this would be considered a public use, and thus prior art, if the invention was "ready to be patented". There's lots of highly entertaining case law on this on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for the twenty-year term, it is irrelevant here. It is the term of a patent starting from the filing date, and has nothing to do with the issue of whether something is patentable or not. In Europe, if your invention has been disclosed, it immediately becomes prior art. There are only two exceptions which give a six-month grace period for filing the patent: if the invention was abusively disclosed by a third-party, or if the disclosure took place in one of a handful of registered international fairs. The US, on the other hand, is more generous and grants a much broader one-year grace period to the inventor. Most Asian countries are in between.

And yes, I am not your patent attorney.
posted by Skeptic at 3:06 PM on June 11, 2011


Anigbrowl the screen caps from the test say seconds not minutes

That's from the laser-simulated nuclear flash test, not the blowtorch. I gave you a link to see for yourself, try clicking on it.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:09 PM on June 11, 2011


Are supermaterials similar or the equivalent of this the reason why it can be claimed that the new Russian Bulava submarine launched ballistic missile's warhead can withstand a nuclear blast targeted against it at 500m range?

According the nuclear physicists of wikipedia, 500m would at least be outside the fireball of a common or garden variety US ICBM warhead. Something lobbed against an incoming warhead would be smaller, and would probably intercept at very high altitude or outside the atmosphere, so its fireball would be way smaller than that. You still wouldn't want one to go off right next to you, but designing something that can withstand a nuke half a klick away probably doesn't require freaky materials.

I don't recall the US having any (overt) plans to use nuclear weapons in its missile defense in any case.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:11 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


5 minutes.

No, 5 seconds. Read the description:

Each test is shown in Real Time and then slowed down in close up.

The zoomed in view is in slow motion, which is pretty deceiving. All in all this doesn't seem too impressive given the amount of thermal energy it takes to boil an egg. The 10,000 C number is completely irrelevant, what is relevant is the 400 Cal per square centimeter per second figure which tells you how much energy the laser is actually able to impart. If you take the radius of the beam as 2cm for example you get a total amount of energy for the 5 second test of about 105 kJ which is really not that much.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:13 PM on June 11, 2011


5 minutes.

No, 5 seconds. Read the description:

Each test is shown in Real Time and then slowed down in close up.

The zoomed in view is in slow motion, which is pretty deceiving.


You're going to feel pretty silly when you eventually get around to clicking that link.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:27 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


humanfont:
A few observations:
1- no control egg is shown.


Here's a control egg.
posted by greatgefilte at 3:42 PM on June 11, 2011


I don't recall the US having any (overt) plans to use nuclear weapons in its missile defense in any case.

Then, you are not old enough.
posted by Skeptic at 3:42 PM on June 11, 2011



I know it's fun to think of this, but thankfully our countries don't actually work this way.


Whew. That's reassuring.
posted by notreally at 3:45 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Actually, here's a slightly better control egg.
posted by greatgefilte at 3:47 PM on June 11, 2011


SPOILER: It doesn't boil.
posted by greatgefilte at 3:49 PM on June 11, 2011


You're going to feel pretty silly when you eventually get around to clicking that link.

I thought it was pretty clear from my comment that I was talking about the laser test, not the torch.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:52 PM on June 11, 2011


ROU_Xenophobe:but designing something that can withstand a nuke half a klick away probably doesn't require freaky materials.

Just put it inside a Frigidaire.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 4:12 PM on June 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Then, you are not old enough.

I meant plans for the future. That said, Sprint will always be in the honorary future.

Frigidaires only work if the object inside is 100% balonium like Han Solo.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:28 PM on June 11, 2011


but will it blend
posted by klapaucius at 5:35 PM on June 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Having seen the video link I see that there is a 5 minute test with a Bunsen burner. Now I have to go to the craft store and get some supplies and home depot to get some fuel for my torch. I'm not happy with the control videos as they lack the vent hood and the contact points for the egg are different. Also the wire and metal bit attached to the egg in the 5 minute video is that a temperature sensor? Could it act as a heat sink?
posted by humanfont at 6:11 PM on June 11, 2011


I don't recall the US having any (overt) plans to use nuclear weapons in its missile defense in any case.

The first big plan was to use nukes as the pump of a big pump and dye style X ray laser.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:23 PM on June 11, 2011


So if we have a sample of this stuff somewhere, and there is no patent for it, how is it that I could have worked out exactly what it is by now (I mean who hasn't built a Raman spectrometer) but no government on Earth has done so?

Also, what kind of nuclear weapon makes a burn mark the diameter of a quarter?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:27 PM on June 11, 2011


THE CONSPIRACY IS
THAT THIS STUFF IS ALREADY USED BY THE MILITARYXENOCULTURALCOMPLEX HOW ELSE DO YOU THINK THEY HAVE MADE THEIR HELICOPTERS SILENT? ? OSAMA BIN LADEN WAS CAPTURED BY SPIRITUAL AGE POLYMERS. DO NOT BE ALARMED THE TRUTH IS HERE. IT IS OBVIOUS BECAUSE IT IS THE WAY THINGS HAVE BECOME IN THIS WORLD ORDER. THE FUTURE OF POLYMERS IS TODAY'S TYRANY OF THE MAN OF SOULS BEYOND THE TEMPORAL IT IS WITHIN THE THREE (3) TRIPARTITE BODY OF SOCIOPOLITICAL HYPERMECHANISMS THAT THE SOUL IS CRUSHED. THE WAY THROUGH IS THE THOROUGH DESTRUCTION OF TOXINS FROM THE BODY. THE MAN DID NOT PATENT BECAUSE MAN CAN NOT UNTIL HE IS PURE. THE WAY THROUGH IS THE THOROUGH DESTRUCTION OF TOXINS FROM THE BODY. DO NOT BE ALARMED THE TRUTH IS HERE TODAY AS A POLYMER FROM THE PAST TOMORROW.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:46 PM on June 11, 2011 [9 favorites]


So if we have a sample of this stuff somewhere, and there is no patent for it, how is it that I could have worked out exactly what it is by now (I mean who hasn't built a Raman spectrometer) but no government on Earth has done so?

Well, if they can forget how to make FOGBANK...
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:49 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thought experiment: take a slice of cake and using your spectrometer reverse engineer the recipe.
posted by humanfont at 6:55 PM on June 11, 2011


I'd rather use a team of culinary specialists and a fully equipped kitchen.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:06 PM on June 11, 2011


Also, in other self-taught materials scientist baffles the establishment news, this time with a lower crackpot index.

Great stuff! Thanks for linking it.

It has me thinking about replacing bad caps on motherboards (or any circuit board with a huge copper areas). Trying to remove parts from multilayer boards with huge copper areas is incredibly painful. It is almost impossible to pour enough heat into the board with an iron, and if you do manage it, it has taken so long that the heat you are applying is heating and damaging nearby parts. So right now, what I do is super heat the leads with a small butane torch. Really hot, but for a very short period of time. This melts the solder without conducting much heat into the surrounding parts.
posted by Chuckles at 7:07 PM on June 11, 2011


Point of order: the last nuclear weapons test at White Sands was in July 16th, 1945.
posted by eriko at 7:11 PM on June 11, 2011


You're gonna want a fume hood if you put an egg over a bunsen burner for five minutes, and you oughtta close the door too because that stuff's going to go EVERYWHERE and it won't take five minutes to happen either.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:14 PM on June 11, 2011


The control eggs aren't interesting at all. Think of a material you can coat an egg with that is a pretty good insulator and can more or less withstand the heat of a torch. Put 1/8th to 1/4 inch of that stuff on the surface of the egg. I bet a lot of materials will perform pretty well at that test.
posted by Chuckles at 7:20 PM on June 11, 2011


Thought experiment: take a slice of cake and using your spectrometer reverse engineer the recipe.

one 18.25 ounce chocolate cake mix
one can prepared coconut pecan frosting
3/4 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
one cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all purpose flower
don't forget garnishes such as:
fish shaped crackers
fish shaped candies
fish shaped solid waste
fish shaped dirt
fish shaped Ethel benzine
pull n' peel licorice
fish shaped volatile organic compounds
and sediment shaped sediment
candy coated peanut butter pieces; shaped like fish
one cup lemon juice
alpha resins
unsaturated polyester resin
fiberglass surface resins
volatile malted milk impoundments
9 large egg yokes
12 medium geosynthetic membranes
one cup granulated sugar
an entry called: "How To Kill Someone With Your Bare-Hands"
2 cups rhubarb; sliced
2/3 granulated rhubarb
1 Tbsp all-purpose rhubarb
1 tsp grated orange rhubarb
3 Tbsp rhubarb; on fire
1 Large rhubarb
1 cross Bohr hole electromagnetic imaging rhubarb
2 Tbsp rhubarb juice
adjustable aluminum head positioned
slaughter electric needle injector
cordless electric needle injector
injector needle driver
injector needle gun
cranial caps
and it contains proven preservatives, deep penetration agents, and gas and oder control chemical's that will deodorize and preserve putrid tissue.

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 PM on June 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


I hope he really is on to something. It seems a shame to have wasted 20+ years if it's just a hoax. Lighter, fireproof material is exciting stuff. Besides I have a soft spot for workshop tinkerers and inventors.

I also miss Tomorrow's World from the 80's.
posted by arcticseal at 7:38 PM on June 11, 2011


Kid Charlemagne writes "So if we have a sample of this stuff somewhere, and there is no patent for it, how is it that I could have worked out exactly what it is by now (I mean who hasn't built a Raman spectrometer) but no government on Earth has done so? "

You can know what something is but not know how to make it. See for example the differences between s plain steel bar and a steel bar that has been turned into a magnet. Or a tempered or cased hardened bar of steel. Even if you can determine the crystal structure of the material it doesn't tell you how to make that crystal structure.

It would be pretty tough to reverse engineer tempered glass.
posted by Mitheral at 7:51 PM on June 11, 2011


It would be pretty tough to reverse engineer tempered glass.

Yes and no... Just knowing that something can be done is a huge step in learning how to do it. Which is why the British, during WWII, spent a fair bit of effort spreading rumours about feeding carrots to anti aircraft gun crews, and otherwise disguising the introduction of radar.
posted by Chuckles at 8:00 PM on June 11, 2011


A cermanic drill!
posted by clavdivs at 10:33 PM on June 11, 2011


What a fascinating story! I think that if Ward had come up with a better way to kill people, then yes, the government would send him on a mandatory vacation during which he'd be inspired to give them all the details. But he came up with a better way to save people instead, so the pressure to push through his eccentricity and finally get a deal done just wasn't there. The various governments and companies he dealt with probably thought they could figure how to make it themselves since they knew it was a solved problem. But no luck so far, apparently.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:59 PM on June 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kevin Street, just what I was going to say, plus that it reminds me of the article which was here a couple of days ago, about how history sometimes has the means but does not produce an idea - like when the Romans had everything for hot air balloons but still failed to invent them.

I know introspection is not the best of tools, but I can understand how the psychology of dealing with big business and its interests could force a principled man to refuse to give up his invention. I do not think this material is "HUGE" - it is for saving lives and lives come at a dozen a penny - the money would be if it produced energy or saved energy.
I mean, the guy should give samples of it to students and see what applications they could come up with - perhaps the science of the material will yield some very fundamental new understanding of our world.

Now, the guy says he only wants his invention to save lives - big companies file up, and when they discover he won't let them do anything they want with it, they fall off one by one and say to themselves - fuck this man, we'll do just fine with the stuff we already have, and at least we can be sure the competition is not going to lay their hands on starlite.

The way I see it the guy could die without giving up his secret and another hundred years pass before anyone chances upon it again and they'll think - god the people were crazy in the 1980's - they had gold right under their noses and could not see it.
posted by Laotic at 3:23 AM on June 12, 2011


If this material could be improved so it didn't charr under high heat it would make a wicked header coating material.
posted by Mitheral at 7:25 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pause the egg test clip at 1:44 and tell me the burn pattern doesn't look like a goat.

I am forced to conclude that this material is the spawn of Satan, hence its heat-resistant properties.
posted by that's candlepin at 5:38 PM on June 12, 2011


The Fortean Times just had a good article on this guy and Starlite. No available on the intarwebs though . . .
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:54 AM on June 13, 2011


Apparently the magic plastic would also have fixed the BP oil leak last summer.
posted by humanfont at 10:37 AM on June 13, 2011


Kevin Street, that's a charming idea, but I don't think that the people in power are any less fond of armor than they are of arms, even if only for themselves.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:01 AM on June 13, 2011


Apparantly, Maurice has died a couple months ago, according to the last entry on that YouTube link.
posted by rich at 12:27 PM on June 13, 2011


Yeah, Wikipedia says the same thing. Poor guy.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:03 PM on June 13, 2011


Thought experiment: take a slice of cake and using your spectrometer reverse engineer the recipe.

Cake is not plastic, so I'd use a different approach, but sure, let's say DARPA really really wanted to know how to make grandma's special cake.

Do a digest/extraction on some cake. Filter and run what you get on an LC/Mass Spec. I'd start by looking at proteins, so do a BLAST search on the fragmetns you get from the mass spec. That's going to give you most of your major ingredients (including the species from which they come). You can then spike in some of these proteins at various concentrations and figure out their relative abundance by regression. The heavy lifting here is going to be finding good digestion conditions.

Near infra-red spectroscopy would give you a moisture profile. Using that and a couple test cakes, you could probably work out a pretty accurate baking time and temperature.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:17 AM on June 15, 2011


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