Material Experts Draw Inspiration from Harry Potter

18 June 2004

When materials scientists and engineers see a film like “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” they automatically start thinking about the materials and processes that would equal or exceed the performance of the imaginary vehicles on the big screen.

“We can't watch a movie without thinking of ways to make the impossible possible,” said materials scientist Bob Bianco, chairman of the Cleveland Chapter of ASM International, the materials information society. “We’re always asking ‘What’s in it?’– trying to figure out what something is made of, and how a similar device could be fabricated in real life for Muggles (non-magic people).”

In the latest Potter movie, the triple-decker Knight Bus accelerates like a rocket and stops like a dropped anchor. “Sounds like a project for the greatest Muggle aviation machine builder in the world, the U.S. Air Force,” said ASM member Greg Petrus, vice president, Deformation Control Technology, Inc.

Petrus cited the composite materials used on the Lockheed F117-A Nighthawk stealth fighter, which are lighter than aluminium and so strong they won’t dent, even when struck with a hammer. “They're the perfect material choice for a light, high-performance vehicle that's about as aerodynamic as a brick,” he said.

To stop the bus, composites again provide the answer. “At speeds the Knight Bus is capable of, the brakes would be exposed to extreme friction and high heat,” Petrus said. “Materials like polymer-metallic composites and advanced carbon/carbon composites would enable the brakes to provide tremendous stopping power, compared to the conventional brakes you’d find in the family car.”

Trautman thought the use of a cast iron cauldron as a bookbag might be excessive for students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. “If they lugged those around, the kids would have forearms like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said. “A cauldron one foot in diameter with a one-inch wall thickness would weigh more than 50 lbs.” She suggested that lighter alternatives to cast iron would have to be determined by the chemical compatibility of various potions brewed in them.

At the other extreme of materials performance, Harry's new Firebolt racing broom is a vast improvement over his old Nimbus 2000. “That's exactly the kind of applied science we see in the Muggle world of sporting materials,” said Ray Cribb, director of technology for alloy products at Brush Wellman Inc. “It's all about ‘feel.’ When a piece of equipment has the right combination of strength and elasticity, hardness and light weight – and it feels right when you use it – that's what we’re all looking for, whether the game is golf, tennis or Quidditch.”

Of all the items in the universe of Harry Potter, at least one is far beyond the capabilities of today’s materials and processes. “Harry's invisibility cloak would take new research that goes well beyond today’s stealth technology,” Bianco said.

“I could envision the cloak being made from a revolutionary new fabric consisting of glass and carbon nanofibres, exhibiting both unique optical and thermoelectric properties,” he said. The fabric would utilize the heat from the wearer's body to change the optical properties of the nanofibres so that light could pass completely through, making the cloak and its inhabitants invisible. “This kind of technology is ‘way out there,” Bianco said. “But that’s the kind of thing that keeps a materials scientist motivated – to find a better way to do something, or to attempt the impossible.” “Because of advances in materials, we Muggles can design vehicles that perform better while using less fuel, nanomaterials for sensors that can improve homeland security and medical materials that save lives,” said Stan Theobald, ASM managing director. “When you think about it, there's a little magic in everything that’s made.”

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