Foamed Infrastructure

[Image: The weird artificial geology of "soil equivalent" landfill foam; image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency].

On the way over to the west coast last week, I read Universal Foam: Exploring the Science of Nature's Most Mysterious Substance by Sidney Perkowitz. Amongst references to "applied foam science," "computational foam" studies, and even a "power-producing sonoluminescent foam" that might someday be used to generate electricity for the national grid, there were two ideas for future infrastructure that seem worth repeating here.

1) Foam Roads
While discussing the buffering quality foam can offer as protection against explosions, Perkowitz points out the logical next step in the neutralization of land mines: he writes, roughly 11 years ago, that "a quick-hardening rigid polyurethane foam is being tested at Sandia"—already manufacturers of a successful "decontamination foam"—"for use in nullifying mines on land or in water by buffering soldiers and equipment against their explosive force, or to lay down a safe ribbon for vehicles to travel."

This "safe ribbon" is, of course, a road—a road made entirely of foam, laid down over active land mines so as to protect vehicles against detonation from below. A whole new class of transportation infrastructure arises: unexplodable foam roads fanning out across military landscapes; instant roads-in-a-can, like shaving cream, that you spray over dangerous terrain; even foam bridges spanning rivers and caves.

Whether or not we'll see roads-in-a-can coming soon to a Home Depot or city works department near you, however, I'd be shocked not to see foam-road weapons in a computer game shortly—foamed infrastructure brought to you in a flash as new roads and bridges bubble out and harden over otherwise inaccessible terrain. Post-geologic weaponized foam activities.

[Image: Applying "soil equivalent" landfill foam; image courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency].

2) Foam Geotechnics
Later in the book, Perkowitz refers to "the possibility that foam could extinguish the twenty-year old Percy Coal Mine fire in Pennsylvania," as well as to "the use of an acidic foam to destroy asbestos installed in buildings by simply spraying it on." In both cases, you would fill a closed space with foam, which would thus go to work extinguishing underground fires or chemically dissolving asbestos.

However, this segues directly into a brief exploration of the geotechnical implications of quick-hardening foam. Chemist Paul Kittle, Perkowitz explains, "worked out a way to cover garbage landfills with foam" back in the 1980s. Quoting at length:
A significant portion of a landfill is occupied by plain dirt, which according to EPA guidelines must be piled six inches deep every night to cover that day's trash. Kittle came up with an environmentally benign shaving cream-like foam that would adhere even to steep slopes and would not blow away. The foam stopped rats and bugs, and prevented odors from rising. But unlike dirt, it dissipated after thirty-six hours, no longer taking up room when it was no longer needed under newer trash. For this reason, says Kittle, using his foam could save up to 15 percent of landfill space.
Geotechnical foams are now used in places like the Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles, using equipment manufactured by Rusmar Foam; Rusmar offers foams of various durations, from 12 hours to 180 days, and with scents such as Vanilla and Wintergreen. Best of all, their product is called "Soil Equivalent Foam"—it is an earth-surrogate, a replicant geology.

But this leaves Perkowitz with what he calls "an image to relish": Perkowitz closes that section of his book imagining "the huge track vehicle Kittle designed, patiently spreading liquid foam to cover acres of garbage made partly of indestructible foamed plastic peanuts, coffee cups, and McDonald's clamshells." Inside a plastic earth, in other words, we simply find more plastics, in an artificial geology sealed with geotechnical foam. Literally what on earth might future geologists think?

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