Bakelite buttons.
Gregory Tobias/Chemical Heritage Foundation via Wikimedia Commons Bakelite buttons.

At the turn of the 20th century, chemist Leo Baekeland sought to create a surrogate for shellac, a natural resin made by insects, with a phenol-formaldehyde material he called "Novolak." Although his new offering was never popular, its development gave Baekeland the knowledge to create Bakelite in 1907, which was dubbed the world's first completely synthetic plastic by the American Chemical Society and became a commercial success. Bakelite was widely used in the 20th century for a variety of industrial and consumer products, which far exceeded his original objective of finding a shellac replacement.

The search for less expensive alternatives to desirable materials has a long history, and the practice often leads to unexpected results. Today, the materials hunt continues at a rapid pace, galvanized by the Materials Genome Initiative, a project launched by President Barack Obama in 2011 to intensify the discovery and development of advanced materials. One target is rare and expensive metals, which pose economic and environmental challenges for many manufacturers.

As part of the initiative, Duke University researchers are scrutinizing platinum, which is used in applications like biomedical devices, automobiles, and plastics fabrication. "We're looking at the properties of 'expensium' and trying to develop 'cheapium,' " said Stefano Curtarolo, director of the university's Center for Materials Genomics in a Duke press release. "We're trying to automate the discovery of new materials and use our system to go further faster."

Platinum nuggets.
Aram Dulyan/Wikimedia Commons Platinum nuggets.

Curtarolo and his team have used supercomputers to analyze thousands of possible new alloys within the platinum group of metals to determine the most successful replacements to pure platinum. After 40,000 calculations, the researchers singled out 37 new candidates. Like platinum, the new binary alloys perform well in high-temperature, corrosive environments, and also have good catalytic properties.

"The compounds that we find are almost always possible to create," Curtarolo said in the release. "However, we don't always know if they are useful. In other words, there are plenty of needles in the haystack; a few of those needles are gold, but most are worthless iron."

Ensuing experiments will determine which of the new alloys will perform best. With any luck, Curtarolo and team may also follow in Baekeland's footsteps, and discover a material with unforeseen potential.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.