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James Cameron and the “Engineering Hack”

James Cameron, renowned director of the film Titanic, was recently featured in a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution video, where he joined a panel of incredible people to discuss the revolutionary technologies and engineering feats that enable researchers to explore the ocean like never before. Aside from his revolutionary filmography, Cameron has become a well-known pioneer throughout the oceanographic industry in his own right. On March 26th, 2012, Cameron became the first person in history to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench solo. Aboard the Deepsea Challenger, which was specifically designed to reach a daunting 11,000 meters using specialty syntactic foam and other technological breakthroughs, Cameron was able to collect data, study specimens, and capture footage which had never been done before.

Before syntactic foam, large exploration vehicles weighed upwards of 100 tons and utilized giant steel balloons filled with gasoline as a buoyancy solution that needed to be towed and lowered off the side of a boat via crane. No one could figure out a substance that both provided floatation at the bottom of the ocean while being able to withstand the crushing force of the hydrostatic pressure. In the WHOI video below, Cameron describes how “somebody got the bright idea of putting little tiny, glass microspheres into an epoxy matrix because glass is the strongest material in compression that we know ”. He also emphasized how this “engineering hack” transformed the next generation of vehicles and the impact syntactic foam has had on the world of oceanographic exploration. 

Check out the video below to watch James Cameron’s thoughts on syntactic foam.


Dr. Robert Ballard and the ROV Little Hercules

Dr. Robert Ballard is one of the most acclaimed and accomplished figures in subsea exploration and his renowned work in the industry requires little introduction. A pioneer in the subsea industry, Dr. Ballard is well-known for his 1985 discovery of the RMS Titanic and 1986 exploration of the Titanic, where he teamed up with WHOI and the HOV Alvin to capture never before seen images. Engineered Syntactic Systems was a key contributor to the upgrades done on Alvin over the past decade and is a critical piece in its future success.

Prior to the COVID shutdown, Engineered Syntactic Systems founding partner, Thom Murray, met with Dr. Robert Ballard and COO Allison Fundis at Nautilus Live Ocean Exploration Trust’s facility in Gulfport, Mississippi to discuss upcoming requirements for ROV exploration. ESS teamed up with the Ballard group in 2019 along with our colleagues at Global Dynamics to upgrade the ROV “Little Hercules” to reach a depth rating of 6500 meters. Discussions with Dr. Ballard focused on his vision for future deployments and upgrading the operational depths of the rest of his current ROV fleet to cover more ocean than ever before. Pictured below is Mr. Murray (left) and Dr. Ballard (right) standing with Little Herc. 

Alvin Upgrades



Engineered Syntactic Systems (ESS) has been a key contributor in the Alvin upgrade, producing the new 6500 meter rated syntactic buoyancy material as well as the manufacturing of the individual components. ESS staff have worked closely with the WHOI Alvin team on all aspects of the buoyancy production.


Bruce Strickrott, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Group Manager and Chief Pilot of the Deep Submergance Vehicle Alvin, recently unveiled upgrades underway for the iconic human-occupied vehicle (HOV) at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting 2020.

Webinar – Syntactic Foams: An Update From Research and Industry

NYU Tandon will be hosting it’s first Zoom webinar in the Syntactic Foams Series on December 4th, 2020, 10-11AM EST. Register for free on eventbrite

Noel Tessier is one of the Founders and Technical Director of CMT Materials, Inc. and Engineered Syntactic Systems, LLC. BS in Chemical Engineering, Northeastern University and MS in Plastics Engineering, UMASS Lowell . His work experience for the last 30+ years has been developing and commercializing syntactic foam products for specialty applications. Some of the commercially developed syntactic foams that he has been involved with include specialty tooling materials for thermoforming, many types of buoyancy products, core materials for highly stressed composite sandwich structures and damage tolerant composite parts, extruded insulation for flexible pipe, insulation and base material to support wire windings in MRI units, ballistic and energy absorbing applications, and insulation having Low Fire, Smoke and Toxicity properties for civil and military applications.

ess management team

ESS Commentary on CAMX 2017

Like many others who had planned to attend CAMX 2017 this year, our thoughts are primarily with those affected by Hurricane Irma. The decision by the show organizers to postpone the event was not an easy one, but it was the right one. (In fact, our sister company, CMT Materials, also had a conference in Orlando cancelled during the same week.)

Our plan for CAMX was to introduce our new tooling board products designed for the composites industry. ESS materials engineers created a new epoxy-based syntactic structure that offers improved toughness and machinability. (See this blog post for complete details.)

If you were planning to visit us in Orlando, we’ll have to take a rain check until December… but feel free to get in touch with us directly to discuss your material needs.


ESS TOOL Syntactic toolboard

ESS Prepares New Product Launch at CAMX 2017

Tough. Durable. Low coefficient of thermal expansion.  ESS-TOOL™ delivers all of the properties expected from high performance, intermediate temperature tooling board plus enhancements to cut machining time in half and increase ramp down curing rates at 2X or more as compared to today’s industry standards.

Leveraging 30+ years of experience in materials science, Engineered Syntactic Systems (ESS) has developed a new line of epoxy and thermoplastic tooling boards for the composites industry.  These tough and machinable materials are an excellent choice for composite fabrication in pre-preg and autoclave cure, wet lay-up, vacuum infusion and other composite processes.   They may also be used for constructing forming tools, master models, fixturing and other heat resistant applications.

ESS-TOOL 250 is the newest addition to our tooling board family. With enhanced properties for toughness and durability, it is designed for use at temperatures up to 250°F (121°C).  The material is engineered with a unique cell structure to reduce machining time and a polymer system that enhances toughness.  The result is faster machinability with superb surface qualities to reduce machining and polishing time. The enhanced toughness allows ramp down rates of up to 4°F/minute (2°C). Users can produce models and tools with great precision and dimensional stability.

ESS TOOL ramp time graph

ESS TOOL ramp time graph

Visit ESS at CAMX 2017 at booth N71 from September 11-14 the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL.

mz grade microsphere syntactic foam


ISO 9001:2015 cert

March 8, 2017, Attleboro, MA

Engineered Syntactic Systems (ESS), a global supplier of high-performance syntactic solutions for buoyancy, insulation and composites markets, is pleased to announce the achievement of the ISO 9001:2015 Quality Management Systems Standard Certification. Meeting the rigorous criteria established in the standard, ESS demonstrates and affirms its commitment to consistently deliver quality products and to drive continuous improvement throughout the organization to meet market demands. The certification was authorized by TÜVRheinland®, a premier global provider of independent testing and certification services with 15 locations throughout North America.

Terrence Woldorf, Managing Director, notes, “I am proud to see the validation that comes from having an independent body certify that our controls, processes, communication and commitment are consistent with the ISO 9001:2015 standards. Our management team, employees, processes and business management techniques were scrutinized along with our entire value chain, from initial product design to suppliers through to delivery and customer satisfaction. We passed with flying colors.”

ISO 9001:2015 provides a set of requirements that must be in place to have a quality management system, regardless of the organization’s size, product or service line, or public or private status.

Certification to the standard is voluntary, and organizations must complete a rigorous auditing process by a third-party registrar.

Project Mohole

A History of Syntactic Foam – Part II

[Part 2 of a 3-part series on the origins of syntactic foam]

As Lou mentioned in his earlier recollections, syntactic foam was a novel material development following World War II.  While polymer systems, including epoxy and polyester resins came a long way very quickly, it was the introduction of hollow glass spheres that proved to be a game-changer in the industry.  Looking at the available literature, it appears that the big bang moment arrived sometime in 1953 when Standard Oil Co. applied for their first patent related to hollow spheres called, “Process of Producing Hollow Particles and Resulting Product” ( US Patent 2797201 A, Franklin Veatch and Ralph Burhans).  They followed that in 1957 with another patent titled, “Method of Producing Hollow Glass Spheres”, (US2978339 A, Veatch, Alford and Croft) and the floodgates opened.  Other important discoveries followed.  Standard Oil stayed very active in the area with numerous follow-on and derivative patents.  Other companies became players in the early days with their own developments such as Exxon Research Engineering, Corning Glass and Potters Industries.  A significant breakthrough came in 1963 when 3M patented a glass bubble method under US patent 3365315A, “Glass Bubbles Prepared by Reheating Solid Glass Particles”.  In later years (1970’s, 80’s and 90’s) organizations such as WR Grace, PQ Corp and Saint Gobain Vitrage all produced hollow glass spheres..  3M became the dominant manufacturer of glass bubbles and remains so today.

As the hollow glass bubble industry began to percolate and form, so too did the variety of areas where the bubble could be used.  Scientists and engineers found lots of opportunities to mix this new material into their formulations to enhance the properties.  Most saw the potential to reduce weight and cost by replacing some of their matrix material with hollow glass.  Others saw the potential to improve their products or processes by reducing shrinkage, improving dimensional stability, or reducing exotherm without significantly diminishing the physical properties of the original products.  Hollow glass spheres began to show up in concrete, plaster, paint, wall panels, and even bowling balls.  Quietly, the Navy and a few clever engineers and scientists began to experiment with these new hollow spheres.  Their interest was in exploiting the low density, high strength and stiffness that could be attained to produce buoyant materials.  It was here that syntactics as we now know them really began to take off.

The Navy’s primary interest was buoyancy for subsea vehicles.  In 1958, the bathyscaphe Trieste was purchased by the Navy for deep water research under the Office of Naval Research.  In 1960, Treiste dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (10,910 meters) utilizing huge volumes of gasoline for buoyancy.  The use of this incompressible liquid with a lower density than seawater was certainly successful, but it was a less-than-elegant solution.  The Navy also had several other Deep Submergence Vehicles (DSV) on the drawing board or in early production that could use a buoyant material capable of survival in the deep.  This was the challenge that drove a flurry of activity and new developments.  In 1962, the US Bureau of Ships began to investigate alternative buoyancy solutions related to these vessels.

Most of the Navy’s work with syntactics in the early 1960’s appears to have come from the US Naval Applied Science Laboratory (ASL) out of Brooklyn, NY and Electric Boat (EB) in Groton, CT (EB).  One name that comes up quite frequently is Israel Resnick from ASL who appears to have spearheaded much of the development.  Some of the work was presented in government-sponsored sessions, one of the earliest being, “Syntactic Foam for DeepSea Engineering Applications” presented in 1965 at the Second US Navy Symposium on Military Oceanography.  In cooperation with industry, Resnick and his colleagues utilized the glass bubbles and resin systems available at the time to manufacture their syntactics.  They also pioneered the earliest development of tests and standards for this new material, including a new ASTM committee on syntactic foam.  Substantial testing was conducted to characterize the long term and cyclic hydrostatic performance as well as mechanical properties.  E.C. Hobaica from Electric Boat published “Buoyancy Systems for Deep Submergence Structures” in the Naval Engineers Journal in October of 1964.  Allen Winer from the Bureau of Ships published a paper in the Journal of Cellular Plastics in May of 1966 titled, “Syntactic Flotation Material for Deep Submergence Vehicles”.

While these teams worked on some of the Navy’s interests in this new material, there was another group working on a completely different project that would greatly change the oil and gas industry.  In 1961, the first phase of Project Mohole was executed off the coast of Mexico.  The ultimate goal of this ambitious project was to drill into the earth’s mantle to better understand the planet’s history and formation.  While the project was not successful in its ultimate mission, it yielded several new critical technologies that would later form the basis for the offshore drilling and oceanographic industries.  It was the first use of dynamic positioning which became a critical component for drill ships.  It was also the first use of syntactic foam subsea buoys for these positioning systems, introducing this new material to a group of engineers and scientists who would change the oceanographic and offshore oil worlds.

ESS Named to Marine Technology Reporter’s MTR100

ESS has been named to the MTR100 list of leading subsea companies. Marine Technology Reporter is a premier industry publication serving the global Marine Technology Market. Click here to access the full list. Our entry can be found on p.17. We work with many of the companies listed in the issue.

Our engineered syntactic products offer best-in-class performance for ROVs, AUVs, floats, buoys and other oceanographic equipment. Our new testing lab allows us to perform cyclic over-pressure testing to equate to long term performance. Because syntactic foam is used at varying depths, companies operating vehicles with expensive optical and robotic technology need to be sure that their components can return safely to the ocean surface. Our customers depend on our material for critical support and we are always looking for ways to bring innovative solutions to challenging environments.


buoy float solutions

A History of Syntactic Foam – Part 1

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.