Human technology has always been propelled by new discoveries and inventions, and many of these have had their roots in one individual. It is those enterprising people who push at the frontiers of our understanding and follow their curiosity into the great unknown who truly drive our ever more technology dependent society. The inventions made by these people are the fuel that powers our progress. As inspiring as this might be, there are the sad cases of what could have been, the ones that for whatever reasons became lost to us and represent a staggering loss of technological potential. One such case is that of a miraculous material, called Starlite, that was created in the 1980s. It was a discovery that truly could have impacted our society in major ways, yet has been lost much to our detriment.
Starlite is the name given to a unique polymer with allegedly extreme insulation properties that is seemingly impervious to heat. During tests it was claimed to have been demonstrated to easily withstand temperatures of 10,000 degrees Celsius. In one 1993 episode of the BBC science and technology show Tomorrow’s World, an egg was coated with Starlite and then subjected to several minutes of intense blasting from a blowtorch. After around 5 minutes of this unforgiving heat assault, the egg showed no scorch marks, was not hot to the touch, and when cracked into a bowl proved to still be totally raw. The coating seemed to totally deflect heat, and could even keep a blowtorch from burning a human hand. Starlite was also placed in the path of high powered energy flashes meant to simulate the scorching heat of a nuclear blast. The material not only survived the ordeal, but emerged virtually unscathed save for a tiny scorch mark on its surface. It was claimed that this creation had a Q-value, or energy absorption rating, of 2,470. To put that into perspective, the tiles used to shield space shuttles from re-entry heat have a Q-value of 1. Add to this the fact that Starlite was claimed to be able to do the same job as space shuttle tiles at 1mm thick rather than the 75mm thick tiles used now and you’ve got a pretty remarkable thing.
Starlite has been hailed as a spectacular, game changing, and indeed seemingly impossible material that not only could challenge current assumptions of physics and thermodynamics, but due to its vast fire retardant and thermal barrier capabilities could also be used in a huge amount of practical applications that could save countless lives. The implications of a lightweight, easy to apply material with the properties Starlite is said to have are truly astounding. If it is even half of what it claims to be, it could change our lives forever.
Sounds pretty good so far, right? So why don’t we have this wonder-polymer available right now? Why aren’t airplanes, spacecraft, indeed even houses, clothes, furniture, military equipment, and pretty much anything else you want to completely insulate, and do not want to burn up in a fire, spray coated with this stuff? If Starlite is so amazing, then where is it? To answer these questions, it is necessary to go back to the beginning.
Starlite’s development, creation, and history are just about as impressive and weird as the supposed physical qualities it possesses. Starlite and all of its purported amazing abilities came from the mind of one man, an eccentric amateur chemist from England by the name of Maurice Ward. Ward started out operating a modest family business as a ladies hairdresser with his family in Yorkshire, England. He had never gone to university and had absolutely no formal scientific training, but had always been a born tinkerer, and had taught himself about chemistry. His first steps into the world of inventing were trying to concoct new types of hair dye and other hair products for use in his shop. Ward would spend hours in his workshop mixing together different ingredients in a process of tireless trial and error, and his homemade creations became quite popular with customers.
Ward may have continued his quest for the perfect hair dye and hair care products forever if it had not been for one fateful day on August 22, 1985, when he happened to see the news of a Corfu-bound plane flight that had crashed at Manchester airport. The ill-fated plane had had an engine catch fire and proceeded to fall from the sky to smash upon the tarmac, killing 55 people, many of them from toxic fumes from the burning wreckage. At the time of this disaster, planes were not required to have fireproof panels of any type, a fact that was undoubtedly a factor in the crash. Ward saw this news and became convinced that the whole accident could have been averted if only they had used some sort of fireproof paneling on the plane. Ward became obsessed with the idea of creating a fireproof, lightweight plastic that would also have the added benefit of not producing deadly toxic fumes if burned.
He began his experiments in earnest, testing and combining various different materials. Ward’s process perhaps deviated from the usual image of creating a groundbreaking invention that could change the world. Rather than in labs and with strict scientific protocol, Ward was using commonly available ingredients that he mixed together in a blender in his own kitchen over many sessions of blind trial and error. He would sometimes go through 20 different formulations a day, with little idea of what he was doing and basically just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick. When he had developed some of the formulas, Ward took the most promising ones and made them into sheets that could be tested with a blowtorch. When he performed his tests, he was shocked at the results. Not only did the material resist the blowtorch flame, but it remained cool to the touch even after intense scorching with 2,500 degree Celsius heat, and was able to prevent the blowtorch from burning a hand and even his own face placed behind the sheet. The inventor was astonished. Without any formal training, or even a college degree, he had created a prototype formula at his kitchen table for a material that acted as an unprecedented thermal barrier the likes of which no one had ever imagined or been able to make with even billions of dollars of research and development at their disposal.
Excited about his discovery, which at the time he called “gubbins,” Ward was eager to show it to someone and find a way to market it. He was awash with the notion that his discovery would not only potentially change the world, but also make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. These hopes would be quickly dashed. Ward took the material to a friend who worked at a chemical company and it was subjected to some tests of its heat resistance. It is reported to have easily stood up to the tests, but that was as far as things went. The manager at the plant was not interested in such a thing at the time, and turned Ward down. The dejected inventor left with his head down, but continued with his work nevertheless, mixing up different concoctions and testing them with a blowtorch in a never ending quest to further perfect the formula. Eventually, his final version of the material was ready, and he called it Starlite, a name his 8 year old daughter thought up.
With his new and improved version in hand, Ward once again tried to raise interest in his creation, but again ran into difficulties. His lack of any scientific credentials coupled with his incredibly bold claims as to what Starlite could do prevented anyone from really taking Ward seriously, and he was turned down without anyone really bothering to verify the material’s capabilities. Ward was seen as a huckster out to swindle people with a bottle of snake oil. However, he stood by his product and, determined to show the world what they were missing, decided to appear on the TV show Tomorrow’s World to give a live demonstration of Starlite. After the impressive egg demonstration, people finally began to take notice.
The potential military applications of a non-burning, non-toxic, lightweight plastic that could completely shield from extreme heat was not lost on defense contractors. In White Sands, New Mexico, a square of Starlite was subjected to a simulated nuclear blast that leveled trees and threw cars around, yet the material was unscathed. The Atomic Weapons Establishment in the UK also organized a test of Starlite where they subjected the material to simulated nuclear blasts rated as having 70 kilo-caloric forces, or the power of 70 Hiroshima explosions. Twice Starlite was blasted in this manner and it was only slightly charred, a feat beyond even Ward’s own ambitious expectations. These blasts were reaching temperatures in excess of 10,000 degrees Celsius, enough to vaporize pure carbon, the element currently known as having the highest melting point known to man, many times over. It was a result that flew in the face of our current understanding of thermodynamics, yet it had happened under the watchful eye and strict controls of legitimate organizations.
More tests followed after that. At the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, Starlite was pounded with concentrated, high intensity laser beams that would have normally cut through even the strongest polymer like butter. Starlite was barely scratched, showing only very tiny pits in the surface where the laser had hit it. The scientists present could not figure out how it was possible, and came to the conclusion that the material must have been somehow absorbing, deflecting, and diffusing heat all at once through some as yet unknown, complicated process they could not fathom. Analysis of the thermal conductivity of the material by one scientist showed it to be a composite material with an engineered smart protection mechanism. NASA was very interested in this stuff, and its spokesman at the time, Rudi Narangor, publicly exalted the capabilities of Starlite, saying:
‘We have done a lot of evaluation and … we know all the tremendous possibilities that this material has.’
With such praise and high profile successes under his belt, the sky seemed to be the limit for Ward. Defense contractors and corporations began to come out of the woodwork, contacting him constantly with offers. One would think that Ward would have jumped at these opportunities, but conversely, the more coverage his product got, the more he withdrew and hesitated to let the formula go. He became extremely paranoid about the material getting into the wrong hands or being used in ways he had not intended. Ward refused to send out samples to companies because he feared it would be reverse engineered by less than scrupulous organizations, and only let a sample out of his sight once, with the piece sent to New Mexico for testing. Ward also would not patent Starlite because he feared it would lead to somebody stealing his recipe for it. The increasingly reticent inventor would not even let the impressive results of Starlite tests be published in peer reviewed scientific journals due to fears that someone would discover its secret somehow.
The business end of matters was no better. When meeting with potential buyers, Ward displayed eccentric practices such as declining to sign confidentiality agreements and insisting on keeping a 51% share of the formula. The prices he demanded often fluctuated wildly as well, and he would ask for 1 million pounds one day only to turn around and ask for 10 million the next, with the price climbing in sudden, large increments. Sometimes he would demand large sums of money just for the privilege of having talks int the first place. He was reportedly notoriously stubborn and difficult to deal with in negotiations with large companies, with whom he could not seem to reach any meaningful agreements. Ward’s paranoid demands and refusals sabotaged all such negotiations and ultimately caused talks to break down with several big companies, military organizations, NASA, and high profile corporations like Boeing, all of which had shown intense interest in the polymer.
As a result of Ward’s paranoia, greed, and inability to hand over his invention or come to any agreement with the companies that sought to buy Starlite, the revolutionary polymer remained in limbo for years. In his later years, Ward began to soften his stance and was talking about finally patenting his creation. He was also in new negotiations with a couple of big companies, including an airline manufacturer, to market it. However, in May, 2011, Ward passed away without ever selling his formula or divulging how it was processed. The composition of Starlite is a complete and utter mystery. It is believed to be a composite of 21 ingredients, including polymers and co-polymers with both organic and inorganic additives, borate, and small amounts of ceramics, with the material oddly composed of around 90 percent organic material, but other than that no one knows. It is unknown what all of the ingredients are, in what proportions they are mixed, or how exactly it is prepared.
Before Ward’s death, the inventor had stated that his family knew the heavily guarded secret formula and production process for Starlite, yet after he passed away they never once came forward with anything to demonstrate that they actually did. To this day, not a single person has come forward to show how to fabricate the material, and thus it appears that it is very possible that Ward took the secret of his astounding creation to his grave.
The huge benefits such a material could have provided are obvious. Starlite was a true modern miracle and a marvel of DIY chemistry the likes of nothing the world had ever seen. It is unfortunate that it may have finally been defeated with the death of its inventor, something not even the power of 70 Hiroshima-sized bombs could do.