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Aluminum’s Star Turn

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

Aluminum’s the current darling of the metallurgy ball, the glittering focus of all kinds of scientific advancement.

For one, there’s the breakthrough that HRL Laboratories, a corporate R&D lab in California, has made in the 3D printing of high-strength alloys of this metal.

Long excluded from the 3D printing game for its incompatibility with the technology, researchers have perfected a technique that charges through the roadblock. Typically, the thin layers of unweldable aluminum alloys would crack when heated as part of the 3D printing process. But this lab’s innovation means high-strength aluminum alloys can now be successfully 3D printed. This development throws wide the additive-manufacturing possibilities for alloys desirable for the aircraft and automobile parts industries.

In the new, nanoparticle functionalized scene, technicians decorate high-strength unweldable alloy powders with specially selected nanoparticles. Layers of this enhanced powder are then fed into a 3D printer, which laser-fuses them together to construct a 3D object. During melting and solidification, the nanoparticles act as nucleation sites for the desired alloy microstructure. That prevents hot cracking and allows for the retention of the alloy’s full strength in the manufactured part.

Meanwhile, another pack of scientists is doing its bit to advance aluminum’s cause, in this case using computational modelling to restructure the metal at the molecular level into an ultra-light crystalline form. In this iteration, the aluminum is lighter than water. That means an aluminum spoon made from the stuff would actually float on water’s surface, rather than sink to its depths, as its conventional counterpart would.

As with the 3D printing advancement, the property this development confers on aluminum blasts open a whole new realm of possible applications. Think aerospace, medicine, automotive, and other industries that could benefit from such lightweight versions of the metal.

Alexander Boldyrev, a researcher from Utah State University, published his team’s findings in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

No doubt, aluminum—long celebrated for being highly functional, non-magnetic, corrosive-resistant, abundant, relatively inexpensive and easy to produce—is enjoying some time in the sun.

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