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Introducing the Superman of Aluminums

It can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound or stop a speeding bullet, but new aluminum material studied at NC State is as strong as steel.

NC State’s Dr. Yuntian Zhu, a materials science and engineering professor, worked with a team of researchers across the globe to create an aluminum alloy – a mixture of aluminum and other elements – that’s still light and flexible despite its steely strength. It’s reported in Nature Communications.

Making super-strong aluminum is pretty technical and involves different nanoparticle architectures obtained by crushing the alloy materials between two anvils while twisting one of the anvils. To a non-scientist, the interesting thing about the research is the counterintuitive nature of reality at the nanoscale.

For example, bigger is usually better, but not in nanotechnology. (Big, of course, is a relative term; we’re talking thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair here.) The individual crystals involved – called the grains – are actually much stronger when they’re smaller.

Moreover, while a defective toaster won’t make your bread warm, defective crystal formations in nanostructures are stronger than uniform crystal formations.

Finally, all these things happening at the nanoscale are impossible to see without a really strong microscope – in this case atom probe tomography. That’s a fancy term for seeing things at the atomic level.  (That microscope you used to look at a drop of blood or an ant when you were 10 years old just  doesn’t do the job.)

So bigger isn’t better, defects are good, and not seeing is believing. Working at the nanoscale, it seems, calls everything into question. Such is life when you’re the Superman of aluminums.