Dr Baekerland Would Be Proud!

In 1907, Belgian chemist, Dr Leo Hendrik Baekeland first invented plastic materials, with his discovery of the first thermosetting phenolic resin compound. This was used to manufacture the first plastic products under the brand name of ‘Bakelite’. The best known examples of Bakelite, in UK, were the original telephone handsets and motor car distributor caps – distinctive for being hard, smooth and glossy in the only available dark brown colour.

The history of plastic developments has since been long and multi-facetted, from the manufacture of cheap children’s toys, to the heat resistant nose cone on the NASA Space Shuttle. In fact, there are now more varieties of the different types of plastic materials – than there are species of timber, with which we are generally more familiar.

For example, Timber varieties have their own unique characteristics and benefits, which justify their individual usefulness. For example, softwoods are generally cheaper and more sustainable but do not last as long as hardwoods, externally, in our maritime climate but they perform well indoors. Similarly, the Meranti and Luan species of hardwood are far less durable than the oily Teaks and resilient Iroko varieties. However, Douglas Fir is a slow grown softwood with a solid reputation for external durability, whilst Balsawood is a species of hardwood that would hardly stand the test of time and strength in any climate! So it is important to understand the differences and to know which variety is ideal for any particular application.

Plastics are similar, requiring a good understanding of their different capabilities in order to select the right type for any given application. All plastics share some common features, with the main one being that they are impervious to water. This is a useful start, especially for external applications – and establishes the first and compelling advantage over timber. Two common forms used in the construction industry are ‘thermo-plastics’ and ‘thermo-sets’.

Thermo-plastics, like PVC, are cured by heat, which enables them to be softened and re-formed like candle wax, by the subsequent re-application of heat, causing them to melt if sufficient heat is applied. They are dimensionally volatile under changing temperatures, having a high coefficient of expansion. Thermosetting resins, however, are chemically cured, thus their performance characteristics are locked in, or ‘set’, during manufacture, so no amount of heat can reverse the process, or subsequently mould or melt them. Thus, they provide a far more reliable and durable compound for external applications where significant temperature changes are experienced and dimensional stability is required.

As well as different resin systems having their own unique attributes – significant development has been undertaken to develop high performance hybrids by adding other components to create new ‘super-strength’ compounds, called plastic ‘composites’, or ‘composite materials’. Such composites, take the strong and reliable ‘thermosetting’ resin system and add glass or carbon fibres into the mix, to act as a reinforcing binding agent to spread any stress loading and give considerable additional strength to the end product. The resultant composites considerably exceed the strength to weight ratio of steel and aluminium – and still, of course, remain impervious to water.

These astonishingly strong and durable composite materials are called FRPs (Fibre Reinforced Polymers) better known as ‘GRP’, ‘Fibreglass’, ‘carbon-fibre’ and ‘graphite’ – and are invariably found in the best sports equipment (skis, golf clubs, tennis racquets, fishing rods, etc). The motor and aeronautical industries have also embraced this technology which provides great strength with lightness of weight, hence their use for the bodies and disc brakes of all Formula 1 racing and many sports cars, as well as for an impressive 94% of the wings and fuselage of the new Boeing 787, scheduled for introduction this year (2010).

Building products, which have successfully used this technology in UK, have been, most notably, the GRP residential ‘composite’ door, introduced in 1987 and which now dominates social housing – and a variety of moulded roof canopy structures. These products use, either, high pressure flat pressing for door skins, or, hand lay-up moulded assembly for the manufacture of more complex shapes. This was the extent of the manufacturing options until more recently, although a continuous manufacturing process has long been sought after, to produce unlimited lengths of shaped profiles that can be cut to any dimension and thus minimise wastage. This ‘pultrusion’ process was developed in North America, in the 1980′s and enabled the availability of GRP fibreglass for a whole new variety of building applications – including window frames.

Windows: For the past 30 years there has been a struggle to establish the optimum window material between, timber, PVC and aluminium. PVC currently dominates the housing market, whilst aluminium dominates commercial, ‘non-housing’ applications. Timber encroaches onto the housing market, too but the inevitable regular and costly maintenance makes it impractical for long term, whole life cost sensitive applications, despite improvements in preservative treatments (which tend to have poor sustainability credentials) and water based finishes.

However, the rapidly increasing awareness of climate change and sustainability has made specifiers re-assess these incumbent materials and have often found them wanting against this new environmental analysis. PVC, for example is condemned by Greenpeace and GHA (The Good Homes Alliance), for its high levels of human toxicity and CO2 emissions, released during manufacture, in use and upon disposal; whilst aluminium is criticised for its high embodied energy during manufacture and its very low thermal insulation. Also, the most commonly used Mahogany timbers can only grow in the Tropical rainforests, which, due to excessive deforestation, is reducing the Earth’s capability to heal itself from the effects of rising CO2 levels, since they absorb CO2 and generate oxygen in return, through photosynthesis. The Rainforests are not called ‘the Lungs of the World’ for nothing!

So it is – that at the very time these product shortcomings have been identified – a solution appears to have arrived!

GRP Fibreglass suffers from none of the above limitations which afflict other materials and is, therefore, ideally suitable for window applications, whether for commercial projects or for housing. The material is made 50% from sand, the most abundant substance on the planet, which has an inherently low thermal conductance and therefore generates lower U values than other materials can achieve. Thus U values of 0.9 W/M2K across the whole window is possible. Furthermore, the extreme strength, durability and immunity from the climate provides a maintenance-free life expectancy of 50 – 75 years, which dwarfs all alternative window materials – and creates a spectacularly good ‘best value’ comparison against all-comers, including the cheapest, softwood – and after only 16 years in that case.

Pultruded GRP is 65% glass, which reduces thermal conductance and expansion, close to that of glass itself, thus reducing friction and wear between sealed units and frames. In addition, up to 33% of the glass comes from a recycled source, scoring additional points on any BREEAM or Code for Sustainable Homes assessment. The frames can also be recycled upon disposal by grinding down for use as filler in concrete to improve the binding agent of the mix.

It is the sheer strength of pultruded GRP that astounds most new comers, having twice the strength to weight ratio of steel and five times that of reinforced concrete. Fact! Aluminium of course is much softer than either steel or GRP – and PVC is weaker still, despite its essential internal metal reinforcement, which ironically creates a cold bridge to further lower its attainable U values.

In practice, GRP scores well over all other window materials, too, being the only material which provides zero maintenance and yet which can be either repaired or repainted if damaged, at any stage of its life, without triggering the need for any future maintenance. By comparison, aluminium and PVC cannot be repaired or recoated commercially and so their appearance will gradually diminish until it becomes unacceptable, when the only way to correct it is for it to be changed completely. For this reason the service lives of aluminium and PVC windows are predicted by independents to be less than half that of GRP. Timber, of course, requires regular and expensive maintenance throughout its life, which is enormously unsustainable and makes it the most expensive whole life cost option of them all, typically twice the cost of GRP over 30 years.

New innovative materials are always greeted with caution in the Building Industry and GRP is no exception! However, the benefits to those who have had the confidence to investigate it and use it first-hand, are immense and have been proven many times over. So, thank you to Dr Baekerland, who would be delighted at how his early discovery has been developed and, today, able to come to the aid of those seeking to reduce carbon emissions and thus help to slow the rate of climate change.

Dental Laboratories – What Makes A Competitive And Safe One

Dental laboratories are key in the creation of a perfect smile for millions of people who are looking for one. Important items used for dental care are made in these facilities. Bridges, caps, fillings, laminates and veneers for the teeth are mass-produced here.

As we all know, the items mentioned above need to resemble and function like real pearly whites. This is because their imperfect manufacture may cause inconvenience and further problems to their users. Even though their manufacture involves different machines, the technicians who will be in charge must exude great skills. Through this quality end products can be expected.

Dental laboratory technology includes cutting-edge procedures like CAD-CAM imaging, computer- based scanning, milling techniques and restoration planning. All these come with a quite expensive cost which not all service providers can afford. Because of this, some choose to hire highly skilled technicians who can come up with the best output instead of investing in the latest technology. Needless to say, patients looking for the best service would always regard a combination of competitive technicians and facilities.

Have you ever experienced wearing an ill-fitting dentures, retainers or fillings? These are most probably made the traditional way – manual creation with the use of mouldings. Modern dental laboratories make use of personalized computer programs which take individual measurements in millimetres to ensure accuracy. This restricts the errors which technicians might make. Therefore, shifting of dentures during chewing, laughing or sneezing is avoided. Additionally, their make is more durable.

Hygiene and safety are two other factors which are considered when these facilities are talked about. Unhygienic labs can cause the spread of deadly diseases among patients. Examples of these are tuberculosis, hepatitis B virus and even AIDS. This is because a variety of microorganisms are released from the mouth when dental procedures are done. These may be surgical or non-surgical.

It is important then that absolute decontamination of the equipment and tools used is observed. This can be achieved by taking note of the standards in the proper sterilization and storage of all the items. A safe way to use each of them is advisable too. Doing the opposite can endanger the health of the dentists, assisting technicians and patients.

Wearing of gloves may seem like a very trivial practice but it is the most important of all. When dentists and technicians wear gloves, contact with the body fluids of the patients is avoided. In the same manner, spread of bacteria and viruses. Disposable and single use gloves are ideal for this purpose.

Dental laboratories may also hold harmful substances which can be hazardous to dentists, technicians and patients. One of these is the silica dust. This is important in the creation of artificial teeth. When inhaled in large amounts, silica dust can cause troubles to the lungs like cancer. Exposure to radiation and loud noises resulting from the creation of dental items is also a possible cause of dangers. Wearing of protective gears like ear caps, goggles and shoes would be very helpful in preventing life-threatening dangers.

Detroit Travel – A Bicycle Tour Through Corktown and Mexicantown

My discoveries of Detroit were slowly but surely coming to an end, and I had seen so many interesting places already in my whirlwind tour over the last four days. Just before I was ready to hop across the border to Windsor again, I had one more adventure on my schedule: a biking tour of Southwest Detroit to cover Corktown and Mexicantown.

After a filling breakfast at the Inn on Ferry Street I took their complimentary shuttle downtown to Rivard Plaza, right next to the Detroit Riverwalk. At 10 am I met Kelly Kavanaugh, co-owner of Wheelhouse Detroit, Downtown Detroit’s first bike rental facility for more than 30 years. Wheelhouse also provides bicycle repairs and service and offers a variety of tours of different Detroit neighbourhoods.

Wheelhouse Detroit was founded by friends Kelli Kavanaugh and Karen Gage, two young women who have been active in the Detroit non-profit and urban planning scene for years. Equipped with advice from fellow entrepreneurs, start-up funding from the city’s micro-credit program and their own savings they embarked on their entrepreneurial venture and bought 30 bicycles which includes comfortable cruisers, city mountain bikes, kids bikes, trailers and even a tandem.

Their bikes are made by Kona, a philanthropically inclined manufacturer that donates bicycles to non-profit organizations in Africa. Along with other people I have met over the last four days, Kelli and Karen are an example of the new breed of Detroit entrepreneurs who combine their love for the city with hard work and entrepreneurial creativity.

On a brilliant but rather cool and windy October day Kelli and I headed off westwards along the the Detroit Riverwalk and quickly passed the General Motor Renaissance Centre and Hart Plaza, the civic centre of Detroit. The Detroit International Riverfront covers an area stretching from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle and encompasses numerous parks, restaurants, retail shops, skyscrapers and residential areas along the Detroit River. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised in the last few years to revitalize this extensive area.

The Detroit Riverwalk is a recreational multipurpose path that stretches 5.5 miles (almost 9 km) along Detroit’s riverfront and provides separate lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists or inline skaters. Wheelhouse Detroit is located inside Rivard Plaza, an outdoor space that features the Cullen Family Carousel, an inlaid granite map of the Detroit River, fountains and gardens. Rivard Plaza was opened in June of 2007 and also features the Riverwalk Cafe.

Cycling west on the Riverwalk, Kelli started to tell me about her venture and about her passion for cycling in Detroit. As the city is quite spread out and a lot of the traffic concentrates on the city’s characteristic sunken expressways, the downtown area is surprisingly free of traffic congestion and cycling-friendly. In my past four days in Detroit I did not encounter any traffic jams downtown, a surprising experience when you come from a congested place like Toronto.

As we pedaled against the wind we passed by several more Detroit landmarks – Cobo Arena, the Cobo Convention Centre and the Joe Louis Arena – home of the Detroit Red Wings. Leaving the downtown area behind we headed into southwest Detroit.

The first neighbourhood that greeted us was Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighbourhood, so named after the Irish immigrants from County Cork that settled here. The houses in this area date back to 1834 and feature nicely restored Victorian homes, many of them brightly painted. Corktown also has many cool gathering spots and eateries, including the funky Zeitgeist Gallery, a bar called Nemo’s which was voted No. 3 “perfect sports bar in the US by Sports Illustrated, and LJ.’s – a hip karaoke place, as well as a wide range of other diverse restaurants.

We snaked our way through this pleasant neighbourhood and crossed over a railway bridge that provided a perfect view of one of Detroit’s most stunning architectural structures: the Michigan Central Depot, also called the Michigan Central Station. Although now abandoned and in poor condition, the Michigan Central Station is a railroad station that was built in 1913 for the Michigan Central Railroad. Its main Beaux-Arts train station is flanked by an 18 storey office tower, a monumental building whose outline dominates South-West Detroit’s skyline. Due to its sheer size and its magnificent architectural detailing, the Michigan Central Depot is still one of Detroit’s most impressive buildings, despite its sad current state.

Past the railroad bridge we arrived in Mexicantown, a vibrant neighbourhood that has undergone significant economic growth in the last few years. Kelly showed me the Michigan International Welcome Centre, a brand-new commercial development in close proximity to the Ambassador Bridge. 85 businesses will welcome visitors in The Mercado, and they will cater to locals and out-of-towners alike with a broad assortment of merchandise.

Further west we cycled by a long strip of Mexican restaurants that include popular eateries such as Mexican Village, El Zocalo, Evie’s Tamales, Lupita’s and Xochimilco. A ride through this neighbourhood revealed an extensive collection of late Victorian homes fronted by large trees. The main streets in the area are Bagley Street and Vernor Street which are flanked by numerous storefronts and eateries.

Away from the main thoroughfares and tucked into the neighbourhood is St. Anne De Detroit Catholic Church, the eighth church in this location whose cornerstone was laid in 1886. The church was originally founded on July 26, 1701, two days after Antoine Mothe de la Cadillac (the founder of Detroit) and his French settlers arrived. Today it is the second oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the United States. Nowadays the congregation includes many Hispanic parishioners who come together to worship in this impressive Gothic Revival structure.

One stop on our bicycling tour included the Hotel Yorba, which inspired the hit single by Detroit garage rock band “The White Stripes”. Today this former hotel provides subsidized housing. We started cycling back to the main road and passed by Clark Park, a large public park on Detroit’s southwest side. Cycling back east on Vernor we saw another strip of Mexican-owned businesses.

On the way back we made a stop in front of the Michigan Central Station where Kelly explained that this is the departure point for the annual “Tour de Troit” event, a 40-mile cycling tour of Detroit that has been attracting biking enthusiasts since 2001. Both Kelli and her business partner Karen have been actively involved in helping to organize this popular biking event. Attendance increased from 650 participants in 2007 to 1100 participants in 2008. Kelly explained that biking is definitely taking off in Detroit. The Tour de Troit event also raises funds for dedicated bicycle trails.

We now turned onto Michigan Avenue, one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares. Stopping regularly we had a look at various bars, cafes and galleries that populate this stretch of the road. One of our final stops was at the Old Tiger Stadium, the former home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. The stadium was originally opened in 1912 and unfortunately partially demolished in 2008. A group of dedicated local citizens is fighting to keep the remaining portions of the stadium intact.

Our tour concluded with a ride through Detroit’s downtown business district and ended back at Wheelhouse’s location on Rivard Plaza. Given that I am an avid bicycling enthusiast myself, exploring Detroit on two wheels was a real highlight of my five-day stint in this city. Bicycling is simply the best way of discovering a city – allowing you to cover great ground at manageable speeds while getting much needed exercise. Being able to easily stop anywhere is a great added benefit for an avid travel photographer like me.

Now thoroughly invigorated I thanked Kelli for introducing me to a completely different side of Detroit and set off to have lunch in the open outdoor space in front of the Wintergarden at the Renaissance Centre. The “RenCen”, the international headquarters of General Motors, consists of seven skyscrapers centered around the 73-story central tower that holds the Detroit Marriot Hotel. This structure has also been the highest building in Michigan since 1977.

The top of the hotel holds Coach Insignia, a fine dining restaurant with the most fabulous views of the city. In 2003 GM renovated the entire complex at a cost of $500 million which added the five-story Wintergarden, a light-flooded glass-enclosed atrium that overlooks the Detroit River. I grabbed my lunch, went outside and enjoyed the fall sun and the magnificent view across the river to Windsor while reflecting on my five action-packed days in Detroit.

Shortly after I called the shuttle service of the Inn on Ferry Street and minutes later I got whisked away. I made a final stop in Greektown, one of Detroit’s most popular entertainment districts. Most of the houses along Monroe Street date back to the Victorian era and today feature restaurants and cafes on the main level. The Greektown Casino is a major attraction in the area.

This exciting morning had concluded my visit to Detroit. I picked up my suitcase, hopped in my car and took the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel back to Canada. On the way back to Toronto I reflected on what an exciting and fascinating destination Detroit had been. During these past few days I got to see so many different facets of Detroit, and I had a chance to meet several people who are truly passionate about their city. It’s always great to get to know a city from the perspective of an insider.

I had had a thoroughly great time in Detroit and over the past five days I had seen so many things I had never expected. And I realized there were so many more places I didn’t get to see.

Well, I guess I’ll have to leave something for next time…