THE egg is ready. Maurice Ward makes certain of that. He hands it over to the TV producers, and the cameras start rolling.
"This is no ordinary egg," says the show’s presenter Peter McCann. Indeed, a blowtorch flame is barrelling onto its surface to no effect. The egg should have cracked apart within seconds under the blistering heat. Yet after a few minutes, McCann picks it up and holds it in his hand. "It only just feels warm," he says. He cracks it open and out dribbles a runny yolk. "It hasn’t even begun to start cooking."
That was March 1990, andon the British TV show Tomorrow’s World was about to transform Ward’s fortunes.
The egg itself was nothing special. Its extraordinary resistance to the blowtorch’s heat came from a thin layer of white material that Ward had daubed on its shell. An amateur inventor from Hartlepool in the north of England, Ward had concocted the stuff with no scientific training and named it Starlite.
According to McCann, Starlite could easily be painted onto planes, electronics, wooden doors, plastic wiring - indeed any place where protection from heat and fire might be important. It looked like Ward would soon be a rich man. Sure enough, scientists, multinational companies and even NASA were soon rushing to get their hands on Starlite. There was talk of million-dollar deals. Then… nothing.
Had Ward fooled the TV producers? Was Starlite a hoax? All the evidence suggests not. Subsequent tests in British and US government labs confirmed that it was the real thing. It also won praise from high places, including Ronald Mason, chemist and former chief scientific adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). “I started this path with Maurice very sceptical,” he told a TV reporter in 1993. “I’m totally convinced of the reality of the claims.”
Over the next two decades, Ward made a handful of samples of his material, but always refused to reveal the recipe. Then, in May 2011, he died.
So what happened to Starlite? The answer is a tale of frustration, power and secrecy, which serves as a sobering reminder that ingenuity and big ideas do not guarantee commercial success. Tantalising questions remain. How exactly did the stuff work? Was it a genuine breakthrough? And crucially, did Ward take its secrets to the grave?
How Ward came up with his invention is not clear, but he was certainly an outsider. A former hairdresser, in the 1980s he reportedly ran a small plastics company in northern England. He was also an English eccentric with a white beard, a bow tie and a divergent mind. He told journalists he made some batches of Starlite on his kitchen table in a food processor, but when a reporter asked what his magical material was made of, his answer was enigmatic, if not downright mischievous. “Oh, just a bit of flour and baking powder,” he said.
Not surprisingly, when officials at the MOD heard about Starlite, they were sceptical. Still, by June 1991 they were sufficiently intrigued to ask one of their senior scientists, Keith Lewis, to take a closer look. At the time, Lewis was the head of the thin-film optics lab at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, now part of the Defence Research Agency, in Malvern, UK. His experience meant he was one of the MOD’s go-to guys for scrutinising promising ideas from unusual sources and he wasn’t about to pass up the chance to study a promising material just because its inventor had no scientific training. “Groundbreaking work can pop up anywhere,” says Lewis.
About 18 months after the Tomorrow’s World appearance, Ward finally agreed to let Lewis run a series of tests, on condition that he wouldn’t analyse Starlite’s ingredients. The first thing Lewis and his colleagues did was fire powerful laser pulses at the material. There was little damage, despite the fact that each pulse contained 100 millijoules of energy and was focused to a tiny spot. “That will drill holes in bricks,” says Lewis.
Other tests at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Atomic Weapons Establishment on the island of Foulness, UK, confirmed that Starlite was the real deal. At Foulness, researchers used an arc lamp, essentially a powerful tungsten bulb, to focus a huge amount of heat onto a small area of the material. Again an impressive performance: the material easily withstood temperatures of around 1000 °C, according to a 1993 article in the military publication International Defence Review.
By now, Lewis and his colleagues were sure that Ward’s material was genuine, and almost certainly unique. But Ward’s obsession with secrecy prevented Lewis from publishing the tantalising results in a peer-reviewed journal. They knew it was a polymer composite - a mix of organic and inorganic components, including plastics, borates and ceramics - but Ward wouldn’t divulge the recipe. Beyond saying that it contained 21 ingredients, he gave no hint on the method. Besides, each new batch had subtly different properties so the data would not pass muster. Yet Lewis and others within the MOD were convinced that Starlite had potential - and more exciting results were to come.
At around the same time, Ward began negotiating with potential manufacturers. “A huge number of large companies were beating a path to his door,” says Toby Greenbury, who was a corporate lawyer at London legal firm DJ Freeman, and Ward’s lawyer for many years.
Greenbury was fond of Ward, and wanted to help him. However, it soon became clear that Ward had failed to grasp the needs of corporate investors. “Maurice was a very intelligent chap, but he was idiosyncratic,” says Greenbury. During negotiations, Ward would ask for £1 million pounds one day, then £10 million the next, he says.
Eccentricity is one thing, but potential partners also struggled to extract useful technical details on Starlite. One afternoon, Greenbury took part in a conference call with NASA. He listened as Ward talked about Starlite’s properties, but soon realised Ward was bandying around scientific terms indiscriminately. “He was using jargon he didn’t understand, and that they probably didn’t either,” he recalls. “If you look at his [contractual] agreements, it was complete gobbledegook. Scientific concepts thrown in willy-nilly.”
Clearly an independent scientific analysis of Starlite was needed before anyone would invest serious money, but Ward was keeping his samples close and the recipe closer still. He feared researchers would copy his invention. Those suspicions didn’t extend to Lewis, fortunately. “I was one of the few people he trusted,” Lewis recalls. “We built a relationship over many years.”
From the laser tests, Lewis knew that Starlite was extremely efficient at scattering and emitting heat and light away from its surface. But that alone couldn’t explain what Starlite could do.
So with Ward’s agreement, he visited the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, UK, where he and the researchers there put the material in a rig designed to measure thermal conductivity. Lewis had already used this apparatus to test heat shielding for missiles.
Secret in the holes
The Cavendish team began by sandwiching three layers of Starlite between metal discs fitted with temperature sensors. Then they briefly heated the top layer and used the sensors to record how fast that heat was spreading. Curiously, initial results suggested that the material was nothing special - its overall thermal conductivity seemed roughly equivalent to that of natural rubber.
So Lewis decided to take a closer look at Starlite with a scanning electron microscope. It was then that he noticed the surface had subtly altered in response to the heat. In particular, he saw that a network of small voids, each one between 2 and 5 micrometres wide, had formed. “I thought ‘This is it! That’s why it works’,” he says.
Lewis realised that these voids transform Starlite’s properties. They act like air bubbles in a foam, providing insulation and reducing the material’s thermal conductivity by at least an order of magnitude compared to fresh Starlite. But crucially, they are small enough not to disrupt the material’s ability to reflect and emit heat from its surface.
It looked as if Starlite was smarter stuff than anyone had imagined. “What Ward had done, and he didn’t know it until I told him, was develop a composite material with an engineered smart protection mechanism,” says Lewis. This placed Starlite in the same class as sophisticated piezoelectric materials or shape-memory alloys, which can change their properties in response to heat, pressure or electric fields.
Perhaps the closest relative to Ward’s invention is “intumescent” paint used to protect steel beams and columns in buildings. During a fire, these paints swell up to large volumes, but they function mainly as an insulator rather than a heat reflector and stop working altogether above 1000 °C. Intumescent paints can also generate harmful vapour. Lewis’s tests showed that Starlite releases very little gas when activated. This would be particularly beneficial in closed spaces such as an aircraft interior.
Lewis was excited. Although he couldn’t offer direct funding, he told Ward that he and researchers at the UK Defence Research Agency were keen to support the development of Starlite and provide the scientific analysis needed for manufacturing to begin. Yet Ward would not bite. The pair spoke several times a year over a period of five years, then communication fizzled out. “We could have really helped him,” says Lewis.
A similar story was playing out in Ward’s other negotiations. Aerospace giant Boeing was particularly interested, and their talks with Ward reportedly lasted for many years. “We see the possibility of preventing injuries and death during aircraft ground fires with this material,” Allen Atkins, Boeing’s then vice-president for technology, said in a magazine interview in 2002. But for Boeing and the other would-be investors, negotiations eventually reached an impasse: Ward wanted million-dollar sums but was reluctant to hand over the recipe. Even for a powerful corporate chief executive, that’s a big risk to take. Greenbury describes how one company boss was almost “driven to dementia” by the possibility that he could be investing in a hoax. “If he was wrong, his board would sack him. Starlite was either one of the world’s big inventions, or it was custard.”
By 2005 or so, Ward had still to strike a major deal, and Starlite languished unused. So he put fresh effort into publicity, set up a website and claimed to be working with a Texan investor. When interviewed in the UK The Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2009, he said he was planning to make Starlite-coated fire doors, and was in fresh talks with an unnamed aircraft manufacturer. “The interest is there, and growing,” he said. But little happened. In May 2011 he died, without patenting or publishing any details of how his wonder material was made.
So why wouldn’t Ward loosen his grip on his invention? Certainly it can be tough for outsiders with a big idea to get the rewards they feel they deserve. And if Ward feared that his recipe might be stolen, he did have some justification. Take Robert Kearns, who invented the car windscreen wiper. In the 1960s, he showed his concept to automobile companies including Ford and Chrysler, but was rejected. A few years later, the wipers appeared on cars. Kearns successfully sued for infringement of his intellectual property. According to Greenbury, Ward was concerned that he would not be able to defend a patent in court if a large company decided to copy Starlite. “He was never prepared to let his guard down,” Greenbury says.
Yet Greenbury believes that Ward was never interested in the money. His thinks Ward wasn’t able to relinquish the role of expert. By passing on the responsibility for Starlite to trained scientists, Greenbury suggests, Ward would have lost this coveted status.
Although we may never know what motivated Ward, there is still a chance that his secret recipe has not been lost. A few years before his death, Ward appeared on a radio station called K-Talk, based in Utah. Towards the end ofthe presenter asked: “What if something terrible happens? What if you pass away?” Ward dismissed the question. “My family know how to make it,” he replied.
Ward’s widow told New Scientist that the family would prefer to remain private about their plans for Starlite. They may, quite justifiably, want to put the experience behind them.
According to Mark Miodownik at University College London, who is compiling the world’s largest library of material samples, this would be a great pity. If Miodownik had a “most wanted” list of rare materials that he’d like to get his hands on, Starlite would be near the top.
Even though 20 years have passed since the wonder material made its debut, none of the materials scientists approached by New Scientist could name a polymer composite capable of protecting an egg in the way Starlite appeared to do. Most composites would quickly melt, burn or disintegrate.
Anything that promises the fire and heat-resistant properties of ceramics and can be applied to a surface as a room-temperature paste is a significant discovery, says Miodownik. “What seems peculiar about Starlite is that you can just paint it onto anything you want to protect,” Miodownik says. Ceramics, by contrast, cannot be applied to delicate materials like wood or plastic without damaging them.
When Ward first daubed his material onto that egg, he surely could not have imagined the attention it would bring him. Although rigorous testing is still desperately needed, the tantalising possibility remains that this amateur inventor stumbled on something special. “No material has ever come close to what Starlite does,” Miodownik says. Starlite, it seems, deserves one more chance.
Richard Fisher is a features editor at New Scientist