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Paradise for geeks

Ben Rossi, Editor, CNME

3M’s innovation laboratory is a paradise for science-geeks. I was invited for a tour around the year-old Innovation Centre in DIC and, despite not being very scientifically orientated myself, I couldn’t help but be amazed.

I was welcomed by a virtual woman made of 3M technology, who kindly talked me through the impact 3M has on all of us every day. There are 55,000 3M products. At any point of the day we are within three metres of one. We touch them every day. A cell phone contains at least four of them. We probably even lick 3M products every day, as it’s found in tooth fillings and crowns too.

After my wonderfully cyber and fact-filled introduction, I was ushered into the plush lab and sat in front of a large screen. Before I knew it I was engulfed into a 3D video containing the kind of inspirational music and over-the-top commentary you’d expect from the overhyped build-up to a big American sports event. But like those sports events, I was completely sucked in.

If that wasn’t enough to fill me up with the feeling of innovation, the lab itself was, as I was given a guided tour around the many influential products 3M has developed in its 110-year history. The products span across a broad range of fields, including graphics, healthcare, telecoms, auto-aftermarket, security, mining, oil and gas, and consumer office.

However, I must admit, despite being suitably impressed by all the products and the influence 3M has had on such a vast range of industries, nothing astounded me more than the Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid. It is designed as a fire suppressant and, whilst applied as a gas, is actually a liquid at room temperature.

So sitting in its container in the lab, it looked just like water – and you can imagine my horror when my tour guide suddenly dropped her BlackBerry into it. My horror turned to astonishment when she then called the phone and it rang like normal in the liquid, and then took it out to find it was still working perfectly.

The fluid has an extremely low heat of vaporisation and a higher vapour pressure, making it evaporate more than 50 times faster than water. I was too scared to put my own phone in the fluid, but after dipping in my finger the fluid evaporated instantly. I couldn’t help thinking that, whilst clearly being fantastic for fire protection, I was keener to see the look on my housemates face if I filled up a glass at home and threw her phone into it.

The impact of 3M’s technologies goes far beyond my own mischievous pranks, however. 3M kicked off its innovation in the early 1920s by developing sandpaper. Its second overall, but first adhesive invention came in the form of masking tape in 1925. This delve into adhesives was important, as it led to 3M’s development of the first surgical drape and many other products – more recently the creation of post-it notes. Most 3M scientists work in the adhesives field.

So how many scientists operate at the Innovation Centre in Dubai? None, as it goes. Whilst there are many engineers working there, it takes around 10 years of development success for an engineer to reach the heights of scientist status.

The Innovation Centre’s one-year life-span hasn’t been quite long enough to produce the next 3M genius yet, although it has already secured one patent for finding a new way of developing a product. With the technology and resources of 3M available, however, I don’t think it will be long until the next big invention comes straight out of the Middle East.

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