The Boston Globe presents an interesting story that writer Shirley Leung says might read more like an Agatha Christie novel than a business and technology article. Characters in the story include Corinna von Schonau-Riedweg, a Swiss heiress, and Baron Wilfrid von Plotho of Rothschild Bank of Switzerland. Technology enters the story because, writes Leung, the heiress has sunk $77 million into a venture called Continuum Energy Technologies in Fall River, MA, and now believes she was duped.
Consequently, writes Leung, “Von Schonau is suing Rothschild Bank of Switzerland, von Plotho, and the two most unlikely players in this drama: former MIT administrator John Preston, who cofounded Continuum, and Harvard’s Michael Porter, who chairs its board.”
Leung has the details on the personalities but is light on the description of Continuum Energy Technologies, where, she writes, “researchers are trying to fulfill an ancient desire to achieve what many consider an impossible feat: changing the properties of matter.”
Here's what the company's website has to say: “CET is an applied physics venture focused on advancing materials science. The company has become a world research leader in electromagnetic tailoring of ordinary materials to develop extraordinary properties. Current innovations include magnetic copper, iron with surface hardnesses that rival diamond, rendering of oxidation-prone metals with dramatically improved corrosion resistance, and materials with substantially enhanced conductivity, density, and composition.”
Despite the mention of “electromagnetic tailoring” in that paragraph, the only technical paper referenced on the site refers to thermal tailoring. That paper, by Christopher J. Nagel and Dudley R. Herschbach, is titled “Unique Properties of Thermally Tailored Copper: Magnetically Active Regions and Anomalous X-ray Fluorescence Emissions” and was published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C in 2009.
Basically, the paper notes that when high-purity copper is melted, thermally cycled in the liquid state (a process referred to as “hot metal tailoring), and allowed to resolidify, impurities, called “sensitized elements,” tend to over-express themselves when subjected to X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF). XRF experiments indicate impurity levels of up to 1% by weight despite the actual purity of the copper being greater than or equal to 99.98% by weight.
The authors write, “The tailoring appears to markedly enhance the intensity of XRF emissions, thereby making minor impurities seem far larger. The tailoring also induces substantial changes in properties such as melting point, hardness, color, resistivity, Hall effect, specific heat, dc magnetization, and ac susceptibility, examined over a wide temperature range.”
It's not clear what the practical applications of this hot metal tailoring might be, but of course if the company's electromagnetic tailoring can improve corrosion resistance and conductivity, it might well have commercial and industrial applications.
Kevin Welch, the company’s executive vice president, told the Boston Globe's Leung that what the company is doing “is not alchemy.” Leung reports, “Welch said the company could be 18 to 24 months away from releasing a preliminary product.”