Fables of the Permanent and Insatiable

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of fire-fighting foam, via Wikipedia.]

There are at least two classes of materials that have always interested me: synthetic materials designed to be so resistant and indestructible that they verge on a kind of supernatural longevity, and engineered biomaterials, such as enzymes or microbes, designed to consume exactly these sorts of super-resistant materials.

There was a strangely haunting line in a recent tweet by journalist Sharon Lerner, for example: “Turns out it’s really hard to burn something that was designed to put out fires.” Lerner is specifically referring to a plant in upstate New York that was contracted to burn fire-fighting foam, a kind of industrial Ouroboros or contradiction in terms. How do you burn that which was made to resist fire?

Unsurprisingly, the plant is allegedly now surrounded by unburnt remnants of this unsuccessful incineration process, as “extremely persistent chemicals” have been found in the soil, groundwater, and bodies of nearby living creatures.

These chemicals are not literally indestructible, of course, but I am nevertheless fascinated by the almost mythic status of such materials: inhuman things that, Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like, cannot be turned off, controlled, or annihilated. In other words, we invent a hydrophobic industrial coating that resists water, only to find that, when it gets into streams and rivers and seas, it maintains this permanent separation from the water around it, never diluting, never breaking down, forming a kind of “extremely persistent” counter-ecology swirling around in the global deep.

Or we produce a new industrial adhesive so good at bonding that it cannot be separated from the things with which it has all but merged. In any other context, this would be pure metaphor, even folklore, a ghost story of possession and inseparable haunting. What if humans are actually too good at producing the permanent? What if we create something that cannot be killed or annihilated? It’s the golem myth all over again, this time set in the dust-free labs of BASF and 3M.

Coatings, metals, adhesives, composites: strange materials emerge from human laboratories that exceed any realistic human timescale, perhaps threatening to outlast geology itself. As continents melt in the heat of an expanding sun ten billion years from now, these ancient, undead materials will simply float to the top, resistant even to magma and celestial apocalypse. We will have created the supernatural, the uncannily permanent.

[Image: “Plastic-munching bacteria,” via PBS NewsHour.]

In any case, the flip-side of all this, then, is synthetic materials that have been designed to consume these very things. Every once in a while, for example, it’s announced that a lab somewhere has devised a new form of plastic-eating enzyme or that someone has discovered certain worms that eat plastic. In other words, there is now in the world a creature or thing that can degrade the eerily immortal materials coming from someone else’s lab down the hall. But what are the consequences of this, the metaphoric implications? What myths do we have of the omnivorous and insatiable?

It is not hard to imagine that classic sci-fi trope of something escaping from the lab and wreaking havoc in the outside world. At first, say, cars parked outside the laboratory where this stuff was developed begin showing structural wear; radio dials fall off; plastic handles on passenger seats break or even seem to be disintegrating. Then it appears inside houses, people accidentally taking it home with them in the pleats and folds of their cotton clothing, where this engineered microbe begins to feast on plastic housings for electrical connections, children’s toys, and kitchen goods, all of which have begun to age before failing entirely.

Then supermarkets and drugstores, then airports and planes themselves. Boats and ferries. Internal medical implants, from joints to stents. This plastic-eating organism begins to shift genes and mutate, inadvertently unleashed onto a world that seems exactly built for it, with new food everywhere in sight. Forty years later, no plastic exists. A hundred years later, even the cellulose in plants is threatened. The world is being consumed entirely.

My point—such as it is—is that materials science seems to operate within two mythic extremes, pulled back and forth between two supernatural ideals: there is that which resists to the point of uncanny permanence, of eerie immortality, and there is that which consumes to the point of universal insatiability, of boundless hunger. Both of these suggest such interesting fables, creating such otherworldly things and objects in the process.

Rock Impostors

[Image: Photo by Rob Arnold, courtesy National Geographic].

A new type of plastic pollution has been discovered, “hiding in plain sight on the beaches of southern England,” National Geographic reports. These are “rocks [that] aren’t rocks at all,” we read, but “rock impostors” made from heavily weathered plastic, colored with streaks of lead and chromium.

“Because they look geological,” environmental scientist Andrew Turner told the magazine, “you could walk by hundreds of them and not notice.”

(Previously: Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach and Intermediary Geologies.)

Strange Precipitation

It’s not only snow falling from the sky this winter, but microplastics, a holiday season marked by petrochemical drifts accumulating on our windowsills and roadsides.

European researchers have found much more than just plastics, in fact, snowing down on our shoulders: “Acrylates/polyurethanes/varnish/lacquer (hereafter varnish) occurred most frequently (17 samples), followed by nitrile rubber (16 samples), polyethylene (PE), polyamide, and rubber type 3 (13; ethylene-propylenediene rubber).”

That’s plastic, rubber, varnish, lacquer, and polyethylene—a true precipitation of the Anthropocene—snowing from the sky, as if we’ve embalmed the weather. Zombie snow.

Meanwhile, it seems as if snow itself is being redefined by these studies. For example, every winter, terrestrial landscapes are buried not just by crystals of frozen water, but by the remains of dead stars.

In what would read like a poem in any other context, ScienceNews reports that “exploding stars scattered traces of iron over Antarctic snow.” In other words, metallic fragments of dead stars can be found sprayed across ice at the bottom of our world.

This has cosmic implications:

The result could help scientists better understand humankind’s place in space. The solar system resides within a low-density pocket of gas, known as the local bubble. It’s thought that exploding supernovas created shock waves that blasted out that bubble. But the solar system currently sits inside a denser region within that bubble, known as the Local Interstellar Cloud. The detection of recently deposited iron-60 suggests that this cloud may also have been sculpted by supernovas, the researchers say.

Sculpted by supernovas. We exist within that space, once carved by the detonations of stars whose metallic remains snow down onto dead continents, forming drifts—someday, entire glaciers—of plastic, rubber, polyethylene, and more.

(Image: Snow, via the Adirondack Almanac. Related: Space Grain.)

On Plastic in Time

Two recent articles worth reading in each other’s context explore the unexpected long-term morphological behavior of plastic.

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Chelly, courtesy Albin-Michel/Galerie47, via The New York Times].

In one, Popular Science looks at the curatorial difficulties posed by plastic objects. Today, we read, “chemists and curators are in near-constant collaboration, working to preserve the world’s modern and contemporary art collections with methods derived from the field of heritage science. The thing is, no one’s actually certain what the best course of action is.”

For example, “museums are still stumped by plastics. Little is known, [University College London chemist Katherine Curran] says, about how plastics degrade, let alone how to stop it. But perhaps most surprising is the fact that most museums don’t even know the type of plastics in their collection. ‘Things often get classified as “plastic,”’ Curran says, ‘and that’s not that helpful.’”

The entire article is worth reading, especially for architects committed to using novel materials in their work without a clear sense of how those materials will behave over time (in particular, when novel materials are used as exterior cladding).

The other article to throw into the mix here describes the behavior of plastic furniture over multiple years and decades as a kind of open-air materials science experiment, unfolding in real time.

“One famous designer chair is oozing goop. Another has exploded into puffs of foam. A bookcase’s shelves bubbled as gases formed within,” The New York Times writes. “The culprits? Plastic. And time.

Like the article linked above, this one looks at plastic’s surprising mutability, given the material’s otherwise notorious, planet-threatening ability to outlast human civilization. It specifically discusses the work of designer Gaetano Pesce, including a cabinet of his that “bulged and warped as gases formed in its depths.” Pesce’s giddy response to his worried client? “The cabinet is alive and beautiful,” he allegedly said. “I so wish I was there to see my work evolving.”

That article also introduces the great phrase “furniture components with questionable futures,” writing that these sorts of “experimental objects are falling into mysterious decay” and that this fate is already visible with 3D-printed artworks, for example, made using materials whose long-term performance is completely unknown.

What’s so compelling about both of these articles for me is the basic idea that something perceived as nightmarishly eternal is, in fact, subject to deeply flawed mundane transformation, and that artificial objects supposedly facing near-geological lifespans actually perform, behave, and decay in semi-biological ways. What’s more, museum curators are ironically being tasked with stopping the decay of a material that, in almost other ecological context, cannot degrade fast enough.

This is not to suggest that we can therefore be cavalier in our use of plastic, but simply that the world of immortal things will not last forever after all.

Supergrass, or the Anthropocene is Local

[Image: Artificial grass stretches onto a sidewalk in Somerville, MA; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While reading that “land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” possibly setting the stage for an irreversible decline in biological variety around the world, it’s worth recalling a somewhat tragicomic article published last week warning that Britain has so many artificial lawns, these so-called permanent botanicals are now considered a threat to wildlife.

From the Guardian:

From local authorities who purchase in bulk for use in street scaping, to primary schools for children’s play areas and in the gardens of ordinary suburban family homes, the sight of pristine, green artificial grass is becoming a familiar sight. One company has registered a 220% year-on-year increase in trade of the lawns.
But as families, councils and schools take to turfing over their open spaces with a product which is most often made from a mix of plastics—polypropylene, polyurethane and polyethylene—there is growing alarm amongst conservationists and green groups.
They say the easy fix of a fake lawn is threatening the habitat of wildlife, including butterflies, bees and garden birds as well as creating waste which will never biodegrade.

I’m reminded of the artificial gardens of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, where plastic trees and flowers tremble lifelessly in an air-conditioned breeze, installed as part of a remote desert complex devoted to human immortality.

Only here, it’s the everyday landscape of Britain, slowly but surely being plasticized, replaced by a chemical surrogate for living matter, this ubiquitous manufactured stand-in for the picturesque English gardens of an earlier generation.

Lost butterflies flutter over plastic lawns, smelling nothing but petrochemicals. Bees land on the petals of polyester flowers and pick up the dust of industrial dyes rather than pollen. Excess drops of translucent glue glow in the afternoon sunlight.

The anthropocene is not only a global transformation; it takes place in—it takes the place of—your own backyard.

(Vaguely related: In the Garden of 3D Printers).

Intermediary Geologies

[Image: From “H / AlCuTaAu” by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

For a project called “H / AlCuTaAu”—named after the chemical elements that comprise its final form—artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen created what they call “an artificial mineral mined from technological artefacts.”

[Image: From “H / AlCuTaAu” by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

As they explain in the accompanying, very brief artists’ statement, “Precious metals and stones were mined out of technological objects and transformed back into mineral form. The artificial ore was constructed out of gold (Au), copper (Cu), tantalum (Ta), aluminium (Al) and whetstone; all taken from tools, machinery and computers that were sourced from a recently bankrupt factory.”

Of course, our devices have been geology all along—refined aggregates of the Earth’s surface repurposed as commercial properties and given newfound electrical life—but it’s incredibly interesting to reverse-engineer from our phones, circuitboards, and hard drives entirely new mineral compounds.

[Image: From “H / AlCuTaAu” by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

The project also—albeit in the guise of speculative art—very much implies the future of metal recycling, where our future “mines” are as likely to look like huge piles of discarded electronics as they are to be vast holes in the Earth.

In the same way that some of you might have tumbled rocks on your childhood desks for weeks at a time to scrape, abrade, and polish them down to a sparkling sheen, perhaps the mineworks of tomorrow will be benchtop recycling units extracting rare earth metals from obsolete consumer goods.

Armed with drills and ovens, we’ll just cook our own devices down to a primordial goo that can be selectively reshaped into objects.

[Images: From “H / AlCuTaAu” by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

You might recall the discovery of so-called “plastiglomerates.” As Science reported last summer, a “new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii.” Part plastic, part rock, plastiglomerates are the new geology.

Put another way, this is terrestrial science in the age of the Anthropocene, discovering that even the rocks around us are, in a sense, artificial by-products of our own activities, industrial materials fossilized in an elaborate planetary masquerade that now passes for “nature.”

[Image: A “plastiglomerate”—part plastic, part geology—photographed by Patricia Corcoran, via Science].

Here, however, in Cohen’s and Van Balen’s work, these new, artistically fabricated conglomerates are more like alchemical distillations of everyday products: phones, radios, and computers speculatively cooked, simmered, bathed, acid-etched, and reworked into an emergent geology.

[Image: From “H / AlCuTaAu” by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen].

It is a geology hidden all along in the objects we use, communicate with, and sell, a reduced mineralogy of electronics and machines that will someday form a new layer of the Earth.

(Via The New Aesthetic).