Metallic glass alloys are ultra-strong materials that, when heated, become as malleable as putty. They have a huge range of uses, but finding out which are best has relied on trial and error methods. However, researchers now say they have developed an “instruction manual” to find the best ones.
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, by scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, could enable the vast potential of these materials to be realized. "They have been described as the most significant development in materials science since the discovery of plastics more than 50 years ago," said lead author Dr. Kevin Laws from UNSW in a statement.
Metallic glass alloys have a highly disordered, glass-like atomic structure, compared to regular metals, which are crystalline and thus ordered when solid. Heating metallic glass allows it to be moulded akin to glass blowing, and certain alloys can be three times stronger and harder than regular metals such as steel, making them the toughest materials known.
Finding the best metallic glass alloys is difficult, though. Discovering them has relied upon trial and error, so this new method could prove invaluable. The team used a model to successfully predict more than 200 new metallic glass alloys in the past few years, using metals such as magnesium and silver. These will now be studied to ascertain their various properties.
The instruction manual works by predicting certain properties of particular alloys, such as detecting structural defects that might discourage the metal forming in a glass-like state. "With our new instruction manual we can start to create many new useful metallic glass-types and begin to understand the atomic fundamentals behind their exceptional properties," said Dr. Laws. "We will also be able to engineer these materials on an atomic scale so they have the specific properties we want."
However, while this is all well and good, metallic glass remains difficult and expensive to make. Its uses have been limited to things like ejector pins in iPhones and watch springs, but if it can be made cheaper – perhaps by finding new alloys using this method – then it could be widely used in electronic devices, batteries, and even spacecraft.