At this year’s K in Dusseldorf (Germany), the international trade fair for the plastics and rubber industry, I’ll be made out of particle foam for the first time. The porous material is as light as a feather and can be used to insulate people and objects against sweat-inducing heat or the frosty cold (such as in a box for crispy pizza, or in wall insulation in new houses). It’s also used for packing valuable objects, so they don’t get damaged in transit – whether it’s a TV, or your own brain, which should always be protected with a foam-core helmet when cycling, riding, or zipping down ski slopes!
Producing particle foam is usually a fairly wet affair. It is made in a similar way to tasty popcorn, only without the need for hot air, sweet sugar, or butter. Instead, the process requires lots of steam, generated in giant boilers that are mostly heated with gas. This steam softens the minuscule plastic particles, so that the propellant within them expands and develops a foamy consistency, like a fluffy dumpling. Hard plastic is thereby transformed into light flakes known as foam beads. In the second stage, these are filled into a closed mold and heated with steam again, so that they expand further, press tightly together, and eventually fuse with one another. A solid piece of particle foam can then be removed from the mold after it has cooled down.
Of course, I’m not very keen on these wishy-washy processes, as they use up lots of valuable energy, and all the objects that are produced still have to be dried afterwards. That’s why two researchers from FOX Velution have built a cool base in Bavaria, where they process the particle foam bone-dry. Using a mysterious machine, they continuously produce an incredible amount of foam beads without any steam whatsoever, before baking them into complex components in clever hot and cold molds. This technique has even been used to embed thin film, plush material, stiff glass-fibers, or sensitive electronics. It’s all done so quickly and quietly that my sens(ears) can barely hear anything from here in Gurten. And despite my eagle-eye laser vision, I can’t even see anyone post-processing, let alone any production waste.
The pair have now used their new method to create a three-dimensional postcard together with me as an explorer of distant galaxies. I still remember my expedition to a fairly foamy planet which, despite orbiting two distant suns, was as pitch-dark as the universe surrounding it. On its dusty surface, scarred with countless meteorite craters, my magneto legs had to work hard to gain a foothold and enable me to observe the environment. With a little luck, you might even find a special particle foam card with glowing green laser eyes and the pulsating ion beam of my rocket if you visit Dusseldorf or Gurten – all without batteries or a plug.
Of course, FOX Velution didn’t achieve this all by itself – in recent months, a great many creative minds came on board and contributed lots of good ideas towards this innovation. So for those of you who are a little older but still extremely inquisitive, the intergalactic magneto-foam card is explained here in more detail.
Your friend, FILLI FUTURE