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Springy Properties Discovered in Nanotech Metal Alloys

Slinky (Steven Depolo/Flickr)Researchers from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey have identified a class of high-strength metal alloys that show potential to make springs, sensors, and switches smaller and more responsive. Their findings will appear on 11 March in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The Rutgers team discovered new elasticity properties in nanostructured metal alloys currently used to make turbine blades and other parts demanding strength under extreme conditions. Their discovery could lead these alloys to be used to make springier blood vessel stents, more sensitive microphones, or more powerful loudspeakers. The alloys could also make components that boost the performance of medical imaging equipment and security systems, and contribute to cleaner-burning gasoline and diesel engines.

In their article, Armen Khachaturyan, professor of materials science and engineering, and postdoctoral researcher Weifeng Rao describe how this class of metals with embedded nanoparticles can be highly elastic, and convert electrical and magnetic energy into movement or vice-versa. Scientists and engineers refer to materials that exhibit these properties as functional materials.

One class of functional materials generates an electrical voltage when the material is bent or compressed. Conversely, when the material is exposed to an electric field, it will deform. These piezoelectric materials, as they are called, are used in a variety of consumer and industrial products, such as ultrasound instruments, microphones, speakers, auto-focus motors in camera lenses, spray nozzles in inkjet printer cartridges, and several types of electronic components.

In another class of functional materials, changes in magnetic fields deform the material and vice-versa. These magnetorestrictive materials have been used in naval sonar systems, pumps, precision optical equipment, medical and industrial ultrasonic devices, and vibration and noise control systems.

Khachaturyan and Rao looked at materials known as decomposed two-phase nanostructured alloys. These alloys form by cooling metals that were exposed to high temperatures at which the nanoscale particles — 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter — of one crystal structure, or phase, are embedded into another type of phase. The structure that results makes it possible to bend the metal when stress is applied, while allowing the metal to snap back into place when the stress is removed.

Because of this elasticity, these nanostructured alloys could make for more effective blood vessel stents, which need to retain their springy quality. In piezoelectric and magnetorestrictive components, the alloy’s ability to snap back into shape after deforming — a property known as non-hysteresis — could also improve energy efficiency over traditional materials that require energy to restore their original shapes.

Read more: New Process Developed for Thin-Layered Nanomaterials

Photo: Steven Depolo/Flickr

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