Real High Tech

May 6, 2020
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Sometime back during the infancy of computers and information technology, someone invented the term “high tech” to describe it.  That is an unfair disservice to many other industries that have their own amazing high technology.  The modern car or SUV has hundreds of components that are incredibly high tech that has evolved over the 125 years plus history of the car.  You realize that personally when you drive and ride in the same model made 20 years apart.  For example, in the mid-1990’s, my wife decided to buy a Ford Mustang Convertible. She found a 1964 1/2 model that had been beautifully restored.  We took it for a test ride.  The suspension was very stiff making a hard ride.  The steering was hard requiring a lot of effort to drive it and it tended to weave back and forth.  She then drove a new 1996 Mustang model.  The improvement in the ride and driving was remarkable.  She bought it.  Later she traded it up to a 2014 Mustang model with a similar result.

My industry, the petroleum refining industry, is also a good example of high technology.  In the early 1900’s refineries distilled the naturally occurring gasoline out of the crude oil which was about 20 percent by volume and had an octane of about 65.  As engine design progressed to higher compression ratios to get more horsepower from the engine, 65 octanes were not adequate.  New refining processes were developed that used high temperature and chemical catalysts to break up the gasoline molecules of carbon and hydrogen and rearrange them into different molecules that had about 90 octanes.

When families became able to own their own family car the demand for gasoline exceeded the natural supply of gasoline in crude oil.  New refining processes were developed that used heat, pressure, and chemical catalysts to break up the large molecules of carbon and hydrogen in that portion of crude oil called “gas oil” and recombine them into smaller molecules in gasoline.

The book “Stuff Matters” by Mark Miodowik, who has a PhD in material science, tells a remarkable story about a dozen common materials that we all know and explains why they have the properties they have.  For example, pure carbon can be either a diamond, the hardest natural material in the world, or graphite which is the lead in a pencil.  It all depends on how the carbon atoms are arranged in the material.  In diamonds, they are arranged in 3-dimensional crystals which makes the carbon extremely hard.  In graphite, the atoms are arranged in 2-dimensional planes which makes the carbon brittle and easily crushed by the writer’s pencil pressure.

Likewise, iron and steel have very different properties depending on the chemical composition and the molecule arrangement in the crystals.  Pure iron is useful for a few purposes but is too hard and brittle for most purposes.  Add a slight bit of carbon and heat it to high temperatures and it becomes carbon steel which is very different.  Carbon steel has very different properties depending on how the molecules are arranged in the crystals.  Over many centuries’ humans learned to change the molecule arrangement by heating and cooling the steel and by either hot or cold working it by rolling or hammering.

A friend who manages a local plant that makes glass-lined steel vessels recently invited me to tour the plant.  The metal and glass working processes are amazingly high tech. There are amazing examples of high tech in numerous such as medicine, agriculture, aerospace, and chemistry.

Author:  Ralph Coker

Bio: Ralph Coker is a retired petroleum refinery plant manager.  He writes on business, economic, military and political topics