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How a unique discovery that bubbled up at 3M changed our world

A microscopic glass sphere can survive in the deepest part of the ocean.

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Lightweight, strong, water-resistant, reflective — no, it’s not your fancy rain jacket and outdoor gear. It’s actually a tiny speck. If you put it under a microscope, you’ll see it’s a glass sphere, and a real modern marvel. This sphere is a glass bubble developed by 3M and is thinner than a human hair — so small, in fact, that you can fit 239 million of them in a thimble. These hollow glass microspheres have incredibly low density and high strength, which means they not only make objects lightweight, but some can also withstand 30,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. But where did they come from, and what are they used for? It all goes back to a breakthrough made six decades ago.

A mysterious element in the lab led to the invention of one of the tiniest tools on the planet.

While experimenting with the glass beads used for reflective road signs in the 1950s, a young 3M scientist named Warren Beck came upon a batch of beads that kept scattering light instead of reflecting it back. Upon closer look, Beck discovered the source: microscopic bubbles within the surface of the beads. He then wondered if these miniscule bubbles could be a solution for something else.

After researching the formation of the bubbles, he developed a technique to manufacture them. Beck used the hollow glass bubbles as fillers in various low-density plastic appliances and demonstrated their functional properties to his managers. From there, these bubbles became a staple in 3M’s vast array of products. Beck envisioned using these bubbles for methods of transportation, and they went on to do much more.

Glass bubbles keep our everyday movements efficient, and make groundbreaking explorations possible.

Today, 3M glass bubbles are regularly used as fillers in the materials that make up airplanes, cars, and boats, among other things. They reduce the weight of vehicle parts and coatings by 15 to 40 percent, which helps cut back on fuel consumption. Vehicles like jet skis, ATVs, motorcycles, and snowmobiles can also benefit from this density reduction. And they’re in a multitude of other objects in your day-to-day life, including shoes, paint, golf balls, and deck chairs. Why? Because the featherlight glass bubbles can make these objects buoyant, solar reflective, and cool in temperature. Their spherical shape even allows them to roll over each other like ball bearings, improving flow properties and stresses, and therefore reducing the warping of any parts. And they take up to 20 times more space than typical mineral fillers.

These glass bubbles have also been utilized in the depths of the ocean. In a 67-mile underwater pipeline through the Mediterranean, glass bubbles support the flotation devices that suspend the pipes 820 feet below the surface. Each year, this pipeline supplies 20 billion gallons of fresh water from Turkey to Cyprus, where demand for water outweighs the supply. And in the western Pacific Ocean, glass bubbles were used in the durable material that allowed a submersible to survive intense pressure in the Marianas Trench, the deepest known point on earth. In 2012, the Deepsea Challenger reached the bottom of the trench, almost seven miles below the surface.

And it all started with a teeny revelation in an otherwise normal experiment. “The knowledge you acquire along the way follows you and enables you to do things that other people have not been able to accomplish,” says Beck. See 3M glass bubbles in action in the video above.

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