It’s funny sometimes how life’s little coincidences come together. Not long ago, I traveled with friends to Lincoln, Neb., to see the Wisconsin Badgers play the Nebraska Cornhuskers. It’s a trip I take annually, to a different Big 10 school each year, with long-time friends I don’t get to see often enough. We’re scattered across the country, but we gather in advance of a game weekend in a nearby metropolitan area to check out a new-to-us city together before game weekend.

This year’s “major metropolitan area” was Des Moines, Iowa, a surprising, charming and fun town. (Though we selected Des Moines due to its proximity to Lincoln and the travel paths of all of the wanderers who were gathering, it’s a great town, and we’d all like to go back.) Spending a few days in Des Moines meant we found ourselves caravanning to Lincoln on a Friday afternoon — and that was when the most serendipitous moment of the weekend occurred.

I was speaking to a friend about how research sometimes makes me feel like Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, the “mystic from the East who could psychically divine unknown answers to unseen questions,” as Wikipedia so concisely puts it. As fate would have it, at that very moment, another friend realized we were just a few miles of Johnny Carson’s birthplace. A few turns later, we were in Corning, Iowa, posing in front of his childhood home.

I was reminded of that conversation and Carnac the Magnificent as I reviewed the latest university research about developments in heat-resistant materials.

  • Rice University laboratory of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, in collaboration with NASA, has developed “fuzzy fibers.” Made of silicon carbide and capable of withstanding aerospace applications, the fibers reportedly hook and loop together something like Velcro. When added to composites, the fibers create strong, interlocking connections where the fibers tangle. Researchers say this makes the composite material less prone to cracking and prevents oxygen from changing the fiber’s chemical composition. Though likely cost-prohibitive for industrial applications in the short term, in time the performance could harbinger new materials for heat processing equipment.
  • Another unusual form factor — ultra-thin ceramic nanofibers that come together as “squishy, heat-resistant sponges” — show promise for many process applications from water treatment to insulation, say researchers from Brown University. Huajian Gao, a professor in Brown University’s School of Engineering and a corresponding author of the research, says that though ceramics are brittle and susceptible to catastrophic failure in traditional form factors such as dishes, on the nanoscale, ceramics perform much differently. Atoms can diffuse along grain boundaries, he says, which allows the material to deform under pressure rather than breaking. The Brown team is exploring methods of manipulating ceramics to create deformable ceramic nanofibers.
  • A team at the University of Michigan developed a plastic as thermally conductive as glass. Though the new polymer is still far less capable of dissipating heat than metals or ceramics, the new material is approximately six times better than traditional plastics, say the researchers. The new heat-conducting material could improve components used in a host of consumer products, including smartphones, vehicles and other high value electronics. Aside from the change they could engender in consumer goods, the new materials will require optimized molding and cooling technologies during processing.

Of course, it will be some time before we see these new technologies, and a host of others, in wide use. And though research results are promising, only Carnac the Magnificent may know for sure whether the materials will find wide adoption, or if they too will be supplanted by still-to-be-discovered technologies.