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Revolutionary Metal Promises Much

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

There’s nothing like the launch into yet another year (2016?! Really?!) to take stock of our expectations of the materials that enhance and facilitate our lives.

For one, consider metals, and their impressive ability to deliver on promises big and small. Key among them, for the coming calendric stretch: increasing lightweightness.

Lighter metals are real sensations for the gifts they bestow on all manner of engineering initiatives. The less metal weighs, after all, the less it drags down the objectives it seeks to fulfill.

The aluminum-bodied Ford F-150 is an example of this reality. Here, manufacturers turned to lighter metals to meet fuel economy standards.

More lightweight exoskeletons bear particular promise for the less laboured existences they extend to injured people who need them to return to more active lives.

Inside this context comes the news that a team of metal whizzes at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have achieved a genuine breakthrough on this front in the form of a super-strong structural metal that is also extremely light.

The impressively high specific strength and modulus, or stiffness-to-weight ratio of this metal marvel means it can withstand an unprecedented amount of weight (and heat) without splintering.

Made from magnesium and silicon carbide ceramic nanoparticles, this is a structural or load-bearing metal. As such, it’s used in the construction of buildings and vehicles, where the dual properties of lightness and strength are paramount.

With this novel metal, researchers have infused magnesium—two-thirds the density of aluminum and the lightest structural metal—with many minuscule particles of ceramic silicon carbide—an ultra-hard ceramic commonly used in industrial cutting blades —and added significant strength, stiffness, plasticity, and durability in the process.

Specifically, the new metal (more accurately called a metal nanocomposite) is about 14% silicon carbide nanoparticles and 86% magnesium, the latter an abundant resource that doesn’t threaten environmental damage.

The result is an innovation—news of which was just published in Nature—that offers record levels of strength and stability.

As this new class of metals polishes its revolutionary properties, the airplane, spacecraft, mobile electronics, automobile, and biomedical devices industries stand eagerly by.

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