Saturday, December 8, 2007

Composite material could lighten laptops

I am fond of aircraft technology and recently learned that aircraft now use composite materials that are as durable as metals but much lighter. Since I carry my notebook computer every day, I began thinking that the outer cover could be made from composite materials such as carbon fiber instead of plain plastics in order to reduce weight.

Wow, what a novel idea. In fact, I really hate taking out the trash because the trash cans are so heavy. So while we’re at it, maybe we could make trash cans out of carbon fiber too. Let’s get some engineers on this right away. Why don’t we also call marketing and yell at them for not thinking of this earlier. And then we’ll call our ad agency to see how we can incorporate this into our brand building campaign. What a brilliant notion! And to think, nobody but you has ever thought of this!

Of course, the only problem with the composite trash cans is that unless you also started making my trash out of carbon fiber, the whole package wouldn’t really get much lighter. I bet your laptop would suffer from the same problem—it’s not the plastic that makes it heavy, but the internal parts like hard drives, monitors, DVD readers, and the hardware that holds it together that really add weight. And if you’re anything like me, that bag you carry around for work has papers, pens, and various other items that together weigh many times more than the plastic covering your notebook.

Moreover, your assertion that carbon fiber is much lighter than plastic is actually a bit off, too. It’s not substantially lighter; it’s just a lot stronger. So you need less material to make a part of similar strength. But considering that there’s really not all that much plastic covering your laptop to begin with, using a thinner layer of plastic would save you a few grams at best. And I won’t even get into the challenges regarding directional strength or elasticity of carbon fiber. But maybe, given your passion for this topic, you could take some night classes in materials science and bone up on that for me.

And no discussion of weight, or rather, mass would be complete without a physics lesson from someone who got a D- in that subject in high school and never formally studied it again. Using cycling as a comparison point, most cyclists understand that whether they reduce mass from their bodies or from their bicycles, it is all the same in terms of the effort required to accelerate the mass. That is why most cyclists subsist on diet coke and black coffee (with the Lycra used as a subversive means of shaming them when they stray from this regimen). But I digress.

Anyway, the same concept of accelerating mass holds true in other applications, such as carrying your computer bag up a flight of stairs. Now you and I have never met, and it could be that you’re a lean, fit, endurance athlete-type that weighs in at a buck and a half American. If so, good for you (perhaps you could think of carrying your laptop as training). But if not, then losing mass from your body would yield the same benefit as having a lighter computer and would result in health benefits besides. Having just returned from Texas, where the world’s two largest PC makers are headquartered, I would wager that most of the folks designing these things could shed three or four laptops worth that they don’t need anyway.

Oh, and we didn’t discuss cost yet either. Again, using bicycling as a point of reference, a carbon fiber bicycle frame costs about four times as much as a similar frame made from aircraft-grade aluminum. And remember, the cheap plastic covering your laptop is not aircraft grade aluminum, but cheap plastic. So aluminum is going to be more expensive than plastic by a similar factor, if not more. Perhaps our customers would let us get away with adding half again more to the cost of our notebooks just to save a few grams. Hey, you never know.

Tell you what, why don’t you quit your job and start a composites manufacturer that makes notebook cases. Then, after your idea has been enthusiastically approved by our product teams and executive bean counters, we’ll hire you to build the cases for us. Deal? Thanks for the suggestion!

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