Metals for a new era

November 23, 2012
Metals for a new era
Silicon particles on the surface of an aluminium alloy. Credit: Monash University

Cars that change colour at the push of a button; metals that strengthen with use; buildings that harness energy from the wind... research into designing structural materials that are both responsive and functional is shifting such ideas from the realm of fantasy to reality.

Associate Professor Christopher Hutchinson of the Department of Materials Engineering at Monash University foresees a future in which reimagined would have multi-functional roles.

"Instead of designing materials and hoping that their structure and properties do not evolve too much during their life, we should acknowledge that they will evolve in service, and design them so that evolution is forced in a direction that actually improves the properties of the material," Associate Professor Hutchinson said.

The significance of Associate Professor Hutchinson's work on designing materials that dynamically evolve in response to stress is recognised by his Future Fellowship award from the Australian Research Council. He also receives support from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Design in Light Metals.

To create these materials, Associate Professor Hutchinson rearranges atoms in steel or other alloys to make them not only resist stresses that normally degrade the material, but actually improve in response.

Facilities at the Monash Centre for , the Australian Synchrotron and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France allow him to monitor the microstructural changes involved.

In practice, such materials would mean that , for example, which currently develop metal fatigue because of constant vibration, would instead grow stronger, remaining safe for much longer.

His success in this process of "redirecting" energy has made Associate Professor Hutchinson consider wider potential for changing structural materials. He and his research team, backed by a Monash Research Accelerator grant, have already worked out ways, using existing manufacturing processes, to cheaply functionalise alloy surfaces.

This work, still at an early stage, opens up a range of possibilities. Alloys that could be made to naturally resist wetting by water would stop plane wings icing up, a major problem in colder countries. Cars could have their colour changed by altering the way the surface reflects light. Ships' hulls could be anti-microbiological, eliminating fouling and improving transport efficiency.

Designing structural materials that can also harness energy is another important focus.

"We put solar cells on the roof: they play no structural role. We should be able to design materials that do both. On a windy day, buildings sway and that energy should be collected," Associate Professor Hutchinson said.

"We're working on ways to cheaply functionalise structural materials so that different forms of energy (mechanical, electromagnetic, etc) can be harvested from them.

"I see a future where there is no difference between functional and structural materials, but we design multi-functional materials that can do both."

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5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2012
Well, while he's at it, perhaps Hutchinson could invent some sort of magic rubber. Let's call that Flubber. We could use it to build flying shoes, so that we won't need airplanes at all.
If this isn't the ultimate fluff piece, I don't know what is.
not rated yet Nov 23, 2012
You don't know what it is These pieces stimulate the imaginations of other researchers.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 24, 2012
You don't know what it is These pieces stimulate the imaginations of other researchers.
Fair enough. Maybe I wouldn't be so disappointed in the article if they had been more forthcoming on details, such as potentially installing pizeoelectric devices in building foundations to capture wind energy, or hydraulic rams gearboxed to spin rotary generators, something like that.
Meanwhile, if researchers are looking for crackpot outside-the-box ideas, they need look no further than the Physorg comments sections. Why, I think someone invented time travel just today. ;-)
Shinobiwan Kenobi
not rated yet Nov 25, 2012
Meanwhile, if researchers are looking for crackpot outside-the-box ideas, they need look no further than the Physorg comments sections. Why, I think someone invented time travel just today. ;-)

They obviously were using Birkland Currents to pull it off :P
1 / 5 (1) Nov 25, 2012
Very fluffy piece indeed ...

Re-arranges atoms? What like peening? Ion embedment? Nano surfacing? These have all been done before. Leave the Unobtainium fantasies for the movies. All real world materials and combinations of, fatigue and fail eventually under cyclic stress. R & D (which this article has zero of), can only extend out that point.

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