Nanocrystal production breakthrough

Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana, USA, have made a discovery that could open up a range of motorsport and other applications for metal 'nanocrystals'. These tiny crystals can be used to make super-strong metal parts, and can be added to other metals or plastics to make new types of composite structures. The Purdue engineers found that the coveted nanocrystals are contained in common scrap: the chips left over from machining are either entirely or primarily made of them

Nanocrystal production breakthrough

Nanocrystals are often harder, stronger and more wear-resistant than the same materials in bulk form. Nanocrystals of various metals, such as aluminium, steel, titanium and tungsten alloys, have been shown to be 100, 200 and even as much as 300 percent harder than the same materials in bulk form.

Purdue professor of industrial engineering Srinivasan Chandrasekar said: "Imagine all those bins full of chips, and they get melted down as scrap. But the scrap could be more valuable pound-for-pound than the material out of which the part is made." Melting down the chips turns nanocrystals back into ordinary bulk metals, removing their unusual properties.

Until now, nanocrystals have been far too expensive and difficult to produce to be of any practical industrial or commercial use. The cost of making them is at least $100/lb, while nanocrystals of certain metals critical to industry cannot be made at all with present laboratory techniques, said Chandrasekar and Dale Compton, his fellow professor of industrial engineering at Purdue. One cumbersome process now used to make nanocrystals in research laboratories involves heating a metal until it vaporises, and then collecting nanocrystals as the vaporised metal condenses onto a cold surface.

"Our contribution has been in developing a process that we think can be used to make these materials in large quantities at very low cost," Prof Chandrasekar continued. "The cost is expected to be no more than $1/lb, plus the initial cost of the bulk material."

The findings will appear in the October issue of the Journal of Materials Research, published by the Materials Research Society. The paper was written by Travis L. Brown and Srinivasan Swaminathan, graduate students in Purdue's School of Industrial Engineering, Chandrasekar and Compton, and Alexander King and Kevin Trumble of the School of Materials Engineering.

Purdue has filed a patent application.

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