Article

Nuclear Foam

| posted on July 22, 2010

If you visit the website for Sandia National Laboratories, you’ll run across all sorts of topics typical of a government-owned operation that develops military technology for a living. In fact, most of the homepage reads like a crash course in modern-military awareness:

“Nuclear Weapons: Ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent.”

“Nonproliferation: Reduce proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and threat of accidents.”

“Military Technologies and Applications: Help maintain U.S. military weapon-systems superiority.”

Given the weighty material here, you’d think this would be the last place to find surfboard foam. But it’s there. No kidding.
Just above the heading that explains how Sandia is working to provide the people of the United States with defenses against terrorism through advanced technology, is a tiny backlit photo of a surfer smacking a section. Below it, in bold, the phrase, “Surfing green, dude!” leaps out at you; as out of place amid the subject matter as Jeff Spicoli would be roaming the halls of the Pentagon.

But evidently, in the post-Clark Foam era, nobody, including the defense industry, is too big to dip their hands into the resin bucket.
“The day after Clark closed I read an article about it in The Wall Street Journal,” recalls polymer chemist and Sandia tech staff member LeRoy Whinnery. “I had been working on a similar foam for about nine years, so immediately I realized it had potential to fill the void left by Clark.”

Sandia calls its product TufFoam. Initially developed to protect electronics equipment and mechanical structures from shock and harsh weapons environments, it’s a water-blown, closed-cell, polyurethane-based material that’s been considered by Sandia for use in everything from car bumpers to airplane wings.

Originally similar to traditional surfboard foam in almost all aspects except its weight density, it was just a chemical tweak or two away from being viable blank material. And after a bit of trial and error, Whinnery and fellow Sandia lab staffers Pat Keifer and Steve Goods managed to fix the problem. Today, their densities match the surfboard-blank standard.
“We haven’t made any blanks yet,” admits Whinnery, “but we’re close to licensing to a couple of companies. We expect them to be making some blanks in the very near future.”

But don’t go looking for Congress to fund a massive Clark replacement facility in the high desert with government-employed scientists blowing out blanks and adjusting bottom contours. Instead, Whinnery says Sandia will sell its formula to blank producers with personnel who are already familiar with the surfboard construction process and its subtle nuances. As a result, the company is currently in the process of finalizing a deal to license its formula with two undisclosed clients who were selected from a pool of more than 50 interested parties. Chosen on the merits of their projected production numbers and their commitment to create a quality product, Sandia says buyers will represent some of the best new blank manufacturers pushing into the biz.

Translation: You could be riding government think-tank foam sometime soon. And according to Whinnery, the materials may do more than just fill an established need in the market. When Sandia’s website exclaims, “Surfing green, dude!” what they’re trying to tell you is they’ve developed a formula that could potentially present surfers with environmental and health advantages practically unheard of in the surfboard-building business.

Originally designed to replace similar volatile foams outside of the surfboard industry, TufFoam lacks toluene di isocyanides, or TDIs, a toxic chemical present in most polyurethane foam, and one that Clark addressed in his final letter as the “main issue” that caused the shutdown of his operation. Additionally, a water-based blowing process that cuts carbon dioxide emissions is cited by Sandia as a feature that makes this product more environmentally sensitive, as well as “a good deal safer,” than the foams traditionally used to build boards.

But while it may be better for both the environment and for worker health, even Whinnery admits it still it still can’t be characterized as completely safe. Like all foams, the Sandia product still contains chemicals that are similar to TDIs; however, their larger molecular size in the Sandia mix makes them considerably more difficult for the body to absorb, therefore making them safer to work with and thus more tolerated by the EPA. And as far as further health and environmental concerns go, less CO2 in the atmosphere is great, but it’s not like you could plant this stuff in the backyard and use it for mulch.

Other concerns obviously come from the performance end of the spectrum. The largest X-factor in how a board actually rides and feels underfoot is flex, and Clark’s density gradients, or the calculated differing densities throughout the blank, would have played a large role in contributing to that.
“Whether we’ll end up with the same kind of density gradients that [Clark] observed, I don’t know,” says Whinnery. “I think there was a lot in his processing that made that happen.”

But while Sandia’s gradients and their resultant effect on the boards is subject to question, Whinnery says his blanks have responded well to bend tests designed to gauge a material’s strength and flexibility.
A promising prospect to be sure; however, the proof will be in the pudding. Since a blank has yet to be blown, and because no shaper has laid a saw-edge to the product, further feedback on the potential in Sandia’s formula is still unavailable.

Following WWII, government funded military research provided surfers with the materials that are now the building blocks of our rides—fiberglass, resin, foam—and today it seems as if a similar occurrence may be underway with Sandia. However, this time they’re fine-tuning what we already have, to fill a need instead of providing something new. And while a safer and more environmentally sound foam is good news to all of us, until a blank is actually blown, a shaper carves it down, a glasser and sander do their work and then the final product blazes through its first cutback to the satisfied feeling of the rider’s feet, the Sandia formula will continue to remain an unproven element in a foam production environment still riddled with question marks.