Louis Bloomfield, the popular UVA physics professor, spent more than a decade trying to solve one of the most difficult problems that humankind has ever faced: How to fix a wobbly table.
But last year, after thousands of experiments, he emerged from his basement laboratory on McCormick Road with a silicone-based substance in hand that can be at once pliable and rigid, the perfect answer for those teetering tables, he says.
“I thought it would be an easy-sneezy task,” says Bloomfield, author of How Things Work, which demystifies the physics behind everything from golf balls to nuclear weapons. “It took a while, but in the end, I think I’ve created something that will do a lot more than fix tippy restaurant tables.”
The substance, which Bloomfield calls “Vistik,” initially feels sort of like rubbery gel padding. But it can be stretched or balled up, like Silly Putty, and eventually returns to its original shape—no matter what. It even bounces pretty well.
“It’s also extraordinarily tasteless,” says Bloomfield, who’s chewed on a few pieces of the nontoxic substance “just to see.”
When Bloomfield began shopping his invention around with the help of UVA Innovation, the office that helps connect technologies created by UVA researchers with business partners, the first to bite was MeadWestvaco, a paper company based in Richmond.
During a recent meeting, a company representative accidentally stuck two pieces of Bloomfield’s invention together and became intrigued with how they clung to one another.
“I started apologizing for that self-stickiness, which is a side effect of its molecular structure,” Bloomfield said. “Then everyone in the room started telling me not to. They saw it as an adhesive for packaging. I never would have thought of that.”
MeadWestvaco is now testing customized versions of Vistik but other companies are interested in it for other uses, says Matt Bednar (Engr ’95, ’97), a licensing associate at UVA Innovation. They include a large footwear company, a toy manufacturer—even a glove maker.
Bloomfield says his invention reflects a change in the nature of his research. For 30 years, he says, he mainly produced basic science research that had little direct applicability to people.
“I wanted to do something useful and I think I’ve done just that,” Bloomfield says.