Photo: Warren Beck holds two 3M technologies he worked on – glass beads and glass bubbles.
When Warren Beck studied ceramics decades ago, he had no idea that he’d end up working on science that would end up in planes, submarines and possibly in the car you drive. We still reap benefits today from work that he did at 3M in the 1940s. His invention has countless applications, including helping keep vehicles lighter and stronger – which can mean less fuel consumption.
Warren was born in 1918. While he studied ceramics at Penn State, he was granted a fellowship from 3M to work on ceramics for roofing granules. Upon graduating in 1943, he landed his first job at 3M Central Research. He started working on roofing granules and then moved to research and development of glass beads for reflective road signs. During that time, he took on an opportunity that led to a discovery that now let’s people solve problems across industries.
When a batch of glass beads came to the lab scattering light instead of bouncing it back, Warren saw a bigger opportunity.
Photo: Retroreflectivity – effective and ineffective examples
Warren identified that the beads had microscopic bubbles in their surface that caused the light to scatter rather than directing light back to its source. He investigated a solution to make the particles small enough to create single bubbles, which are much lighter.
Warren thought that if he could create them, they would be useful for making more lightweight materials that still held their strength, especially useful for aerospace and hydrospace – underwater. Because 3M has a 15 percent culture encouraging employees to work on projects outside of their regular duties, Warren was able to dedicate time to investigating how the bubbles formed on the glass beads. By methodically evaluating particle size, composition and environmental factors, he made 100 percent hollow glass bubbles.
After making some low-density plastic parts with these glass bubbles, he demonstrated to his managers that he had made a great discovery. From there, word spread fast and glass bubbles are used across multiple industries even today. They are still used in transportation, as he originally envisioned, and their high strength and low density make them perfect for use in mining, construction and many industrial applications.