The next metal we'll treasure may be a metal nanocomposite
Lighter metals are key to many desirable engineering goals. The aluminum bodied Ford F-150 is just one example of manufacturers turning to lighter metals to meet fuel economy standards. As 2015 draws to a close, breakthroughs in exoskeletons have topped the list of achievements -- imagine how lighter structures could further advance the hopes of returning injured people to active lives.
From high-density living to visions of space travel, we rely on science for the breakthroughs that make more possible. So the achievement of a team of researchers at UCLA deserves note. They have succeeded to create a metal nanocomposite out of magnesium and silicon carbide ceramic nanoparticles. According to UCLA:
"The researchers’ new silicon carbide-infused magnesium demonstrated record levels of specific strength — how much weight a material can withstand before breaking — and specific modulus — the material’s stiffness-to-weight ratio. It also showed superior stability at high temperatures."
The main trick is getting the nanoparticles to distribute evenly - breaking their natural propensity to clump together. Scientists have long thought that ceramic composites could offer promising engineering properties but larger particles reduce the metal plasticity. The nanoparticles improve plasticity -- but have been difficult to work with, especially in scalable processes.
The abundance of magnesium reduces the environmental impact of widespread use of the metal, and should help to keep costs under control, so that dreams of high-tech innovation do not suffer from scarcity issues.