A small company based in Iowa has developed products made with a “smart” metal that can turn your walls or your head into speakers.
Five of Etrema’s top executives are sitting in a conference room listening to jock rock. The space is drab even by conference-room standards, furnished with an oversized green marble table on which sit two fist-sized chrome discs plugged into a portable CD player. But the music sounds as if it is coming from everywhere. The quality is so good that when I close my eyes, I could swear that Queen’s Freddie Mercury is standing in the room in front of me, promising, “We will, we will rock you!”
Michael Conley, the company’s president, pats the green marble?and tells me that’s where the music is coming from. Last August, Etrema?an innovative technology firm nestled in the cornfields of Ames, Iowa?started selling those chrome discs for $1,500 a pair. Called Whispering Windows, they can turn any wall, window, or drab conference table into a speaker. When Conley lifts the discs from the table, Freddie falls silent.
Whispering Windows is just the first of dozens of products that Etrema is hoping to launch in the near future, including a wireless version and an advanced sonar system for the U.S. Navy. The common ingredient in all of Etrema’s offerings is something called Terfenol-D, a metal that changes its shape?as quickly as 20,000 times a second?when exposed to a magnetic field. A tiny amount of the metal?about a splinter’s worth?causes invisible vibrations that are rapid and powerful enough to move the surface of an entire tabletop, allowing it to transmit sound (see box). Terfenol is currently thought to be the “smartest”?i.e., the most reactive to its environment?metal in the world. And for the time being at least, the 40 employees of Etrema are the only people in the country who know how to affordably manufacture it.
Terfenol’s potential uses are vast. Etrema’s scientists are figuring out how to use it to recycle car tires, help the hearing-impaired, and take the smell out of hog waste (by separating out the ammonia). With so many products to develop, CEO Bill Flowers says, it can be difficult to concentrate on the most promising ones. “We’ve really struggled with it,” he says.