New Metal Nanocomposite May Revolutionize Transportation

Written by: James Wilkey
Written by: James Wilkey

As the industry creeps ever closer to mastering aluminum and other lightweight metals for use in manufacturing, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have developed a new, super-strong, yet remarkably light material that could revolutionize aerospace and automobile manufacturing.

The new material is about 86% magnesium and 14% silicon carbide nanoparticles. Magnesium is an abundant, lightweight, load-bearing material used extensively to increase strength, hardness, and corrosion resistance in steels and aluminum. Silicon carbide is a hard ceramic used to make car brakes, knives, and bulletproof vests. Using silicon carbide nanoparticles to strengthen magnesium without compromising its plasticity is not a new idea. It’s just that no one had been able to do it until now.

Ultrasonic Processing
Ultrasonic Processing

The problem was clumping. Normally, ceramic nanoparticles tend to bunch together when they are added to a molten metal. Instead of becoming stronger, the material becomes more brittle. To do any good, these particles need to be evenly dispersed in the mixture and hold their place until the new material cools. Led by researchers from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the UCLA team used ultrasonic processing to evenly disperse the nanoparticles of silicon carbide in the molten magnesium-zinc. Then, they applied high-pressure torsion (HPT) to compress it.

There are many benefits to the new nanocomposite alloy. First off, it is lighter, stronger, and more heat-resistant than other metals currently used to build cars, planes, and spacecraft. In fact, it demonstrated record levels of specific strength and modulus, or stiffness-to-weight ratio. Moreover, magnesium is also readily available in large quantities. That means manufacturers would be able to use the composite to build lighter and stronger products at a lower cost, and with a much lower environmental impact than any other competing metal. Making aircraft, spacecraft, and automobiles lighter also results in vehicles that put less demand on their engines, making the vehicles more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. Automobile fuel efficiency also translates into major savings for consumers.

Most importantly, the new nanocomposite alloy offers all of these advantages without compromising safety or quality of the manufactured good. Imagine a car or a plane that costs less to use without jeopardizing your safety. That alone makes this new material worth considering. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to see this and other high-performance, light-weight materials in action. The UCLA research team has already developed a scalable manufacturing method that incorporates their new nanoparticle-based process.

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