A new shape memory material stays strong even after tens of millions of transformations. It may finally pave way for widespread usage of the futuristic materials.
This isn’t just a steppingstone to bringing shape-shifting materials into everyday products (finally)
In theory, shape-memory metals ought to be revolutionizing every corner of technology already, from the automotive industry to biotech. These futuristic metals—which can be bent and deformed but pop back to their original shape when heated or jolted with electricity—have already existed for decades. Until now, though, every shape-memory alloy has faced the same glaring issue: they wear out, and fast. Depending on the alloy, the metals will slowly lose their ability to change shape after just a few (or if you’re lucky, a few thousand) transformations. That’s kept the metals in the lab and out of your car or phone.
Today a team of German and American scientists have stumbled across an alloy of shape-memory metal that just won’t quit—not even after being bent and reshaped an astonishing 10 million times, an unparallelled feat.
Manfred Wuttig, a material scientist at the University of Maryland who helped lead the team, said the metal’s “fortuitous discovery,” was part of a long, frustrating hunt for durable shape-memory metal. As Wuttig and his colleagues detail in a new paper in the journal Science, understanding the secret to this material’s hardiness may open the floodgates to a new generation of shape-memory materials that make it into the real world.
“This really is a huge breakthrough, and could make shape-memory alloys much more widely used in everyday technology” says Richard James, a leading shape-memory materials scientist at the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the research, “I’ve personally made many, many [shape-memory] alloys that have various super interesting properties, but no one would be able to use them as they last only a few cycles.”
Serendipity leads to a mystery
The science team came upon this metal alloy serendipitously, rather than having carefully designed it, and so just how it manages to keep its shape for so long without any wear and tear is still largely a mystery. But the researchers have two ideas, and believe the metal’s durability may ultimately be due to a mix of both.
First you need to understand how shape-memory materials work. To put it simply, the atoms that make up the materials can switch between two different atomic configurations depending on whether or not they’re being subjected to heat, electricity, or even magnetism. For example, imagine you have a shape-memory metal at room temperature, with atoms that all connect in cubes like stacked dice. Once you add heat, those atoms rearrange their structure and suddenly connect in a new hexagonal pattern like a honeycomb—which changes the shape of the entire hunk of metal. Remove the heat and the atoms snap back to cubes, and the metal reforms to its original configuration.
The Latest on: Shape-Memory Metal
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The Latest on: Shape-Memory Metal
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