Basalt. Shrimps. Volcanoes. Forrest Gump. Queen.
Most people will remember the film ‘Forrest, and the wonderful scene in it, in which Benjamin Buford Blue (Bubba for short) lists the different ways he knows how to prepare shrimps: “there’s shrimp kebabs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo…” The situation is very much the same for fibres: you can have cotton fibres, ceramic fibres, wool and silk, carbon fibres, glass fibres, fibres made from plants etc., and fibres made from volcanic rock. Yes, you’ve read correctly: r o c k. So, what is this all about?
Fibres from volcanic rock are extracted from basalt, easily recognisable all over the world due to its typical column shaped structure (see photo above), and are called, accordingly, basalt fibres. And because 40 percent of all rocks on the earth belong to the basalt family, it was also not that long after the emergence of natural sciences that this rock – excuse the pun – set the stone of scientific debate rolling.
Indeed in the 18th century basalt triggered a heated dispute between the so-called Neptunists (“the earth and rocks originated from a primordial ocean – columnar basalt ‘grew’ in water through crystallisation”) and the Plutonists (“basalt was the result of cooled down lava”). It took 50 more years of intellectual debate before it was clear that shrimps come from the sea, but basalt doesn’t. The Plutonist’s assumption was therefore rock solid: basalt is solidified molten magma from gigantic volcanoes that gave up the ghost – or rather, the fire – millions of years ago.
As a result, industry insiders speak of ‘volcano in reverse’ when they describe how the extremely fine fibres are extracted from the hard rock. This involves melting down the mined basalt, which can vary in quality according to the region, at temperatures up to 1,450 degrees Celsius and taking it back, so to speak, to its original state of magma. Next, the resulting molten mass is literally shot through ceramic nozzles from the end of which emerge the basalt fibres. What happens next would turn even the guardians of the coca cola recipe green with envy: in a secret process, even more secret additives are added to the basalt fibres, to refine them for incorporation in materials, components and products used in engineering, the electrical industry, the aerospace industry and the automobile sector. The interest for industry lies primarily in the fibres’ high UV and temperature resistance and also in their corrosion resistance. So, extinct volcanoes now also enable many a squash ball to be smashed against a wall at top speed with basalt fibres even being added to the production of squash rackets to improve rigidity and consequently, the transmission of force.
The current main research objective of textile scientists is to develop a manufacturing process that compensates for the natural variation in the quality of basalt so as to achieve a consistently high level of quality in the end products. If you would like to get to know about ‘rock’ fibres, from their introduction in the 1960s and 1970s primarily in aerospace sector, before they were pushed out by glass and carbon fibres in the 1980s, to the state of their current development, then the next Techtextil (5-7 May 2015) is the place to be – in addition there may even be an opportunity to have a photograph taken with the then 10th Basalt Queen (see photo).
Incidentally, we really tried our best to come up with a meaningful title using elements of this text, but failed. If you have any suggestions, please get in touch with us – the best headline will subsequently be added to the top of this text, Vulcan promise.
Picture above: Natural organ-shaped landmark: up to 12 metre high basalt columns with a diameter of 20 to 40 centimetres of the 30 metre high Panská skála in the Czech Republic (source: Dr. Thomas Scholle, Stolpen)