Thursday, July 18, 2013

Plastics (and Limits to Innovation) in the America's Cup Yachts has a nice piece about some of the uses of plastics in this year's America's Cup raceboats. The article cites some of the AC72 Class Rule document about finishes.
"Only paint systems generically specified as two-component linear polyester saturated aliphatic polyurethane, two-component epoxy urethane, or two-component acrylic urethane, and manufactured by International, Awlgrip, Akzo Nobel or Resene, may be used as the outermost surface finish of the hulls, appendages, and immersed components such as fairings. No materials other than specified manufacturer-supplied retardants, accelerants, thinners and pigments shall be added. Similarly, the specific gravity of the paint shall not be altered with any material other than those specified above. The Measurement Committee may authorize the use of comparable paint products from other manufacturers provided those products meet comparable requirements for product standardization, compliance, and testing." (Section 17.1)
So not only do you need a polymer chemist as part of your boatbuilding team [*], but it appears that International, Awlgrip, Akzo Nobel and Resene are all sponsors of this race to some small degree.

While the PlasticsNews article brought to light this use of plastics on the yachts, the rules actually have far more specifications on plastics. What I find rather bizarre is even though this race has become a showcase for America's billionaires to try and outspend the world's billionaires innovative technologies, the rules clearly place limits on the use of the latest and greatest technologies. Consider sections 13.7 and 13.8:
13.7 "No FRP component shall have fiber modulus greater than 395 GPa."
13.8 "Isotropic materials shall have elastic modulus less than 220 GPa. "
So if you have a new innovative new material that you want to show off, go elsewhere. Or wait until the rules are rewritten for the next race 3 years from now.

This next rule is doubly bizarre as not only does it limit the use of modern processing technologies, but it also it very difficult to determine if it has been violated:
13.1 "The use of electron beam or any other non-thermal radiation cure of composites is prohibited. This does not prohibit the use of conductive heating with electrical current for the cure of composites."
No e-beam curing allowed? How would you even test a sample to determine its curing method? I'm sure it could be done with some extensive extraction methods, looking for reaction products/byproducts resulting from the e-beam, but you would need a piece from deep within the composite and that's going to damage the boat in a significant manner.

That's not the only rule that would be difficult to detect violations of. Look at these rules on processing temperatures and pressures:
13.6 "The temperature of FRP components, other than soft sails, shall not exceed 135 degrees Celsius at any time during construction and post construction."

13.9 "Pressure applied at any time during construction to FRP components, other than soft sails, shall not exceed 7 atmospheres, but this limitation shall not prohibit building methods including the use of clamps or mechanical fastenings, wrapping, and winding etc."
How in the world would you ever be able to detect if a part was processed above 135 oC? Above 7 atmospheres?

A rule for which violators can't be detected is useless but the bigger question is why the rule exists in the first place. Why would these limitations exist at all? I am aware of examples in international competition where rules such as these exist in order to level the playing field so that athletes from poorer economic conditions can compete with those that are financially better off, but that is hardly the case here. These are billionaires all on an ego trip. Need more cash for an oven that can go to 200 oC? Cut 10% of the workforce at one of your companies and sell some stock after the price jumps. A little short of money for an e-beam processing line? Short that pharma stock that is about to have their new drug shot down by the FDA. (You know, the one that you overheard the conversation about while lunching at the club last week.)

There are plenty more examples of material limitations in the rules, but you can already see the point I am making: the America's Cup race is nowhere near as innovative in materials use and processing technologies as I thought it would be. And that's really disappointing, as innovative composite materials and breakthroughs in the processing technologies could help a large number of industries such as automotive, construction, and aircraft to produce products that are more energy efficient. But that's not to be, at least this time around.

[*] What a cool job! Where do I sign up?


Anonymous said...

Americas Cup rules are written by the winner. They specify everything to try to give themselves an advantage; even if they could do it in a different, there is an advantage to crippling your opposition and limiting them to technologies that you know they are not as skilled at. Enforcing those rules, as you pointed out, is a completely different matter.

Chemjobber said...

I am in total agreement w/Anon. This is about making other people break the rules, so you can accuse them of it, when you lose.

John said...

Both of your comments are understandable, but then can we cut the drivel about how these boat are full of so much cutting edge technology?

I wonder if F1 cars have such stupid restrictions. (Not only restrictions on not using state-of-the-art technologies, but also rules that are clearly unenforceable.) If I have some time (someday) I may see what I can find.