Scientists Create Ultra-Strong Micro-Cubes by Rearranging their Nanostructures

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 11:55

Scientists of the Rice University team have created ultra-strong and tough metallic micro-cubes by rearranging their nanostructures upon impact.

This study, which was published in Science. demonstrated that firing a tiny, nearly perfect cube of silver onto a hard target turns its single-crystal microstructure into a gradient-nano-grained (GNG) structure.

The study aimed at learning how materials deform under overwhelming stress, as might be experienced by a bulletproof vest or a spacecraft that encounters micrometeorites.

The researchers believe creating a gradient nanostructure in materials by way of deformation will make them more ductile and therefore less likely to fail catastrophically when subsequently stressed. Ultimately, they want to develop Nano-grained metals that are tougher and stronger than anything available today.

The research team which was led by materials scientist Edwin Thomas, dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, used its advanced laser-induced projectile impact test (LIPIT) rig to shoot micro-cubes onto a silicon target. The mechanism allowed them to be sure the cube hit the target squarely.

The Thomas lab developed the LIPIT technique several years ago to fire microbullets to test the strength of polymer and graphene film materials. This time the researchers were essentially testing the bullet itself.

The cubes for the study were synthesized as single crystals via bottom-up seed growth to about 1.4 microns per side, about 50 times smaller than the width of a human hair. When a laser pulse hit an absorbing thin-film gold layer underneath the polymer, the laser energy caused it to vaporize. That expanded the polymer film, which launched the micro-cubes.

While Nano crystalline structures make metals stronger, they also increase their susceptibility to catastrophic brittle failure due to the way those grains localize strain. Studies have demonstrated that creating a gradient-Nano-grained structure from the nanometer to the micron scale may provide high strength yet alleviate such brittle failures by better distribution of stress.

As Thomas explained, they also discovered the impact stores considerable elastic energy in the material, which leads to slow but continuous recrystallization of the metal at room temperature, even though silver’s melting point is more than 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Electron microscope analysis of samples eight days after impact showed the crystals were still seeking equilibrium.

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