In three weeks, one of the last technological breakthroughs of the cold war will hit the shelves of America's sporting-goods stores. With it, Little Leaguers and recreational softball players will hit harder and farther. Their secret: a new aluminum bat that is stronger because of work done by the Soviet Air Force.
Aircraft designers are always looking for better materials to enhance the performance of their planes. In the 1980s, Soviet engineers hit upon the idea of using small amounts of an element called scandium to strengthen aluminum. Scandium, although rarely found in sizable concentrations, was readily available at the Zhovti Vody uranium and iron-ore mine near Kiev in Ukraine. So scandium-enhanced aluminum began to show up in Soviet spacecraft and military fighters, such as the twin-engine MiG 29, which first entered service in 1985.
But the cold war ended before the Soviets could really take advantage of the alloy. And Ukraine broke away to form its own nation. So, the new government and the miners at Zhovti Vody began looking for new customers.
Enter Ashurst Technology Ltd., a Bermuda-based corporation with offices in Baltimore and Kiev. The company worked with scientific teams in Ukraine to come up with new customers. These include aircraft designers, such as McDonnell Douglas Corp. and Israel Aircraft Industries, but also a bevy of consumer-oriented companies.
Their first scandium-aluminum product: a new baseball bat 11 percent stronger than today's best aluminum models. Ashurst licensed the technology to bat manufacturer Easton Sports Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., which has christened the new bat the "Redline." The bats should start shipping to dealers May 1 and show up on store shelves in the second week of May.
The new bats won't come cheap. Baseball and Little League models will sell for $240; the softball model, $250. Will parents and recreational players really shell out $250 for a bat? (Aluminum bats aren't allowed in major-league baseball.) "If they're serious about having the best equipment out there, they'll buy it," says Kerry Jarrell, marketing communications manager for Easton.
Because the aluminum is stronger, Easton's engineers have been able to make the walls of the "Redline" bat 4 to 7 percent thinner than Easton's already thin-walled aluminum bats. This gives the bat more flex, which allows it to transfer more energy back to the ball it hits (as a trampoline sends someone back into the air once they've jumped on it).
Scandium aluminum has other useful properties. It's more workable, more resistant to fatigue, and easier to weld than other varieties of aluminum. That is why Ashurst is pushing the metal for everything from aluminum arrows to automobile manufacturing, hockey sticks to ski poles. "We plan to make it big in the golf industry too," says Troy Tack, vice president of sales for Ashurst.
It is not just Soviet cold-war technology that's been turned to more positive uses. About the same time the Russians were using scandium aluminum for MiG fighters, the US government delivered a huge 4,000-ton extrusion press to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Wash. The facility produced plutonium for nuclear bombs. But the cold war ended before the press could be used and Hanford's mission changed.
So the US government struck a deal with Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp., which retooled the press and now uses it to turn out aluminum tubes that Easton Sports turns into bicycles and, yes, aluminum baseball bats.
Swords into plowshares? We haven't achieved that yet. But it's something to think about next time you hear the crack of a bat on a summer day.
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