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Stronger than steel or titanium -- and just as tough -- metallic glass is an ideal material for everything from cell-phone cases to aircraft parts. Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a new technique that allows them to make metallic-glass parts utilizing the same inexpensive processes used to produce plastic parts. With this new method, they can heat a piece of metallic glass at a rate of a million degrees per second and then mold it into any shape in just a few milliseconds.
"We've redefined how you process metals," says William Johnson, the Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Engineering and Applied Science. "This is a paradigm shift in metallurgy."
To heat the material uniformly and rapidly, they used a technique called ohmic heating. The researchers fired a short and intense pulse of electrical current to deliver an energy surpassing 1,000 joules in about 1 millisecond -- about one megawatt of power -- to heat a small rod of the metallic glass. The current pulse heats the entire rod -- which was 4 millimeters in diameter and 2 centimeters long -- at a rate of a million degrees per second. "We uniformly heat the glass at least a thousand times faster than anyone has before,"
"Our game now is to try and extend this approach of inducing extensive plasticity prior to fracture to other metallic glasses through changes in composition," Ritchie says. "The addition of the palladium provides our amorphous material with an unusual capacity for extensive plastic shielding ahead of an opening crack. This promotes a fracture toughness comparable to those of the toughest materials known. The rare combination of toughness and strength, or damage tolerance, extends beyond the benchmark ranges established by the toughest and strongest materials known."
The initial samples of the new metallic glass were microalloys of palladium with phosphorus, silicon and germanium that yielded glass rods approximately one millimeter in diameter. Adding silver to the mix enabled the Cal Tech researchers to expand the thickness of the glass rods to six millimeters. The size of the metallic glass is limited by the need to rapidly cool or "quench" the liquid metals for the final amorphous structure.
"The rule of thumb is that to make a metallic glass we need to have at least five elements so that when we quench the material, it doesn't know what crystal structure to form and defaults to amorphous," Ritchie says.