Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How to Make Formica....the hard way.

Sometimes I just snap a picture because I find the image interesting, then later try to figure out what it is all about.  But in this case I just had to think a bit, to remember something I knew a long time ago.

In Italian "formiche verdi" means "Green Ants".  Formiche is plural.  One ant is "formica" just like the floor covering stuff.  But the link between the two meanings of the word takes a side step.

Ants, some of them anyway, have a sort of low grade venom.  It stings when they bite you.  The stuff is called formic acid.  If you prefer the pun, it is "ant-acid".  It also puts the sting into stinging nettles.

Formic acid was first isolated by English naturalist John Ray in 1671.  He collected what must have been a very large number of dead ants and distilled the stuff out of them.  Now of course it is made synthetically, and in a sort of spoil sport re-naming is technically called methanoic acid.

The modern day uses of formic acid are many.  The biggest use is as a preservative for livestock feed. It also is used in the manufacture of the artificial sweetener aspartame.  And of course as a binding resin for making a variety of textiles and such.

Formica was invented in 1912.  It was supposed to be an electrical insulating substance made up of layers of paper bonded together with a resin.  The name is a pun in several ways.  The insulation it was supposed to replace was mica.  So this new substitute would be used "for" mica.  And of course the resin contained formic acid, which one could in theory still manufacture by distilling down a huge pile of "formica".

The use as a flooring material came later.  At least in our house the ants seem to have no qualms whatsoever in walking across it.

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