Engineers have long craved for a material that is as strong as steel, having good conducting properties, but also being moldable like putty. They may soon get such a material, thanks to research done at Yale University. Moreover, it is cheap to produce. Apple has taï»¿ken a particular interest in this, planning to make iPhones and iPads out of this material in future.
The new material is called ‘bulk metallic glasses’ (or BMG’s) and it has a structure akin to a metal alloy, but not quite. It is stronger than steel and is as moldable as plastic.
What is it?
This is great news for fabricators working in fields of condensed matter physics and material sciences, not to mention plastic and synthetic makers. The ‘alloy’ is a mix of metals like zirconium, nickel, titanium and copper, and arranged in a structural pattern that is in-between a metal and a plastic. The key property of the material is that it doesn’t possess the long-range, crystalline order of metals. The atoms are not completely randomly oriented either. This gives the material the hardness and durability of metals, as well as the flexibility of plastics.
The fabrication of the material is also one of the pluses. The manufacture happens in one step. No ‘finishing touches’ are required to perfect the shape either. The shaping process involves inexpensive procedures used in the plastic industry, such as blow molding at low pressures, after slight heating.
As Jan Schroers, leader of the research team at Yales and ex-director of research at Liquidmetal Technologies, notes:
It’s the low temperatures and low pressures that allowed the team to shape the BMGs with unprecedented ease, versatility and precision, Schroers said. In order to carefully control and maintain the ideal temperature for blow molding, the team shaped the BMGs in a vacuum or in fluid.
The blow molding method reduces friction to nearly zero, even at nanoscales, allowing the material to be made into any shape with utmost ease. Jan Schroers already sees a potential application in the manufacture of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), tiny mechanical devices that run on tiny electrical currents. Apple has quickly moved close to sanctioning a huge amount for commercializing BMG’s, aiming to use it for future iPhones and iPads.
Schroers signs off with the perfect last word:
This could enable a whole new paradigm for shaping metals.