A History of Syntactic Foam
By Thom Murray, Principal, Engineered Syntactic Systems
We are often asked how and why the syntactic foam industry seemed to emerge from one particular region of the US. Many of the true pioneers in the field started in the Northeast US and planted the technological and business seeds that gave rise to a unique material. We thought it would be interesting to look back at how the industry evolved and record some of the significant people and events that shaped it. The three principals at CMT Materials and Engineered Syntactic Systems share some of this history, each with between 25 to 30 years of experience making syntactic foam. The industry really got its start back in the 1950’s, however, and matured as the constituent materials used to make syntactic foam improved. Like many industries, growth was fueled by a combination of market needs and technological breakthroughs.
There are three names that continually pop up when describing the early history of syntactic materials: Dave Cook of Flotation Technologies, Lou Watkins, and Bill Cumings, both of Cuming Corporation. Each had a distinct influence and contributed greatly to the growth of syntactic materials in a wide variety of applications. Bill passed away in 2009, still working and creating as he had for so many years. Dave and Lou are both officially retired from the day-to-day business, but they are known to share their experience and knowledge. To get started, we reached out to Lou and asked for some of his early recollections. He graciously provided us with a starting point.
Part I: Beginnings, by Lou Watkins
“It’s exciting when new materials arrive at just the right moment to enable another revolutionary technical advance. That was the case as syntactic foam buoyancy became available to the fledgling offshore oil business. The time was 1968 and the place was the Santa Barbara Channel, off the coast of California. The vessel was the Bluewater II, one of the first true semi-submersible floating drill rigs, operating in 842 feet of water. This is the story of how that first deep-water well gave rise to a major industry that has made worldwide exploration for oil and gas at sea possible, even in water depths approaching 12,000 feet and beyond.
The term “syntactic foam” refers to a lightweight/high strength composite material made by mixing tiny hollow glass microspheres into a plastic binder. Syntactic foam was one of many new materials created during the period of explosive growth that followed World War II. Crucial to this development were the twin inventions of liquid epoxy resins and microscopic glass bubbles. It was soon discovered that the glass microspheres were greatly reinforced when encapsulated in the rigidly cured epoxy plastic. The result was a synergistic composite in which the strength of the whole was much greater than the strength of any of its parts. Even today, syntactic foam is the strongest material for its weight known to man.
In the 1950s, the United States Navy used syntactic foam to make buoyancy blocks to support its fleet of remotely-operated subsea vehicles. That soon led General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division in Groton, Connecticut, to add buoyant void fillers to military submarines. A young chemical engineer named Dave Cook left Electric Boat in early 1968 to join Data Packaging, a plastics molding company located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge firm had received a contract from the Navy to develop recovery systems for sunken ships. In fact, the customer was actually the CIA and the real objective was to raise the K-129, a Russian navy submarine that sank in 16,000 feet of water in the Pacific Ocean. The Data Packaging project moved too slowly to suit the CIA and eventually the submarine was raised by Howard Hughes’ Glomar Explorer. But the seeds of a new technology had been planted.
At the same time the CIA was searching for the K-129, Exxon (then Humble Oil Company) was preparing to drill exploratory wells in the Santa Barbara Channel. The problem was that the 800-ft-plus water depth was too deep for conventional offshore drilling techniques. Stresses on the riser pipe, the steel conduit connecting the rig on the surface to the ocean floor, were considered excessive. Exxon approached Data Packaging to see if their new syntactic foam technology could provide enough buoyant lift to make safe drilling possible. The project was assigned to Dave Cook and his new protégé, Lou Watkins, who had recently relocated to Boston from North Carolina. The prototype modules were successful, and the first of several purchase orders for drilling riser buoyancy were placed by Exxon.
Unfortunately, a blowout and major oil spill near Santa Barbara in early 1969 (the Bluewater II was not involved in any way in the spill) led to a moratorium on drilling off the coast of California. But the need for riser buoyancy continued to grow in the Gulf of Mexico and in the North Sea. New orders were received from Shell Oil, Sedco, and the Offshore Company. The Flotation Products business quickly expanded and in 1970 moved into larger quarters in West Warwick, Rhode Island, close to its other customers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (Falmouth, Massachusetts) and the Navy facilities in New London, Connecticut.”
Next installment: early developments in a growing industry.