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Jeremy Faludi, 16 Nov 05


NASA, CalTech, and the DOE have come up with a pretty amazing new metal alloy (or family of alloys, actually), which has twice the strength and three times the elasticity of titanium. This isn't in the lab, either--it's been available commercially for a couple years now, if you knew where to look. Now NASA and co. have worked out the bugs well enough to get serious about commercialization.

Called "Liquidmetal", it is made of zirconium, titanium, nickel, copper, and beryllium, and it has an amorphous crystalline structure rather than a crystal lattice. (Hence the name Liquidmetal--as it cools, it doesn't change molecular structure significantly, it just gets more and more viscous until it's a solid, like glass does. Unlike glass, however, it's extremely tough and flexible.) I don't know what the environmental impact of manufacture is, but super-strong and super-tough materials like this enable "dematerialization"--using less mass to do the same job. This is a useful green design strategy, particularly for transportation and buildings.

Even better, it has a much lower melting point than the metals it's made from, so it can be cast into permanent molds for mass-manufacturing, as opposed to steel or titanium, which can only be cast into single-use molds. It also enjoys full strength in casting--it does not have to be forged or wrought to achieve full strength.

A company named LiquidMetal was formed to sell the technology. As they say on their website, "Steel was the foundation of our modern industrial revolution... Plastic's overwhelming cost advantage leads to explosive growth [because mass-production casting can be done with a single permanent mold]... Liquidmetal alloys combine over twice the strength of titanium with the processing efficiency of plastics to create the 3rd revolution." That's a pretty bold statement, but so far the material has only been used for sporting goods (skis, baseball bats, tennis rackets, and golf clubs) and a flash-drive case. Still, the company envisions much more high-performance applications, and if everything they promise is true, it's hard to imagine they'll be wrong.

thanks to Blaine Brownell for the tip.

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I wonder if it's recyclable or if it's harmful either in terms of its manufacture or its general presence to the natural world... I've actually seen it in the SanDisk Titanium and it actually seems heavy-- I wonder if I'm just used to the plastic variety.

Posted by: alex on 16 Nov 05

Thanks, Blaine.

Posted by: csven on 17 Nov 05

que the T[erminator]-1000 jokes lol.

cool post thanks.

Posted by: sp0078 on 17 Nov 05

I've read that this material is expensive to produce, and that their scientist has been tinkering around to find a cheaper material produced from cheaper ingredients like iron. Meanwhile some new innovations promise to lower the cost of producing titanium alloy. Another thing is that amorphous alloys, despite their amazing properties have a reputation for slowly accumulating fractures over time. Even golf club heads produced by LiquidMetal are supposed to accumulate such fractures, and attempts are still being made to improve the formulation. I hope your news from NASA means they've succeeded.

Posted by: manofsan on 17 Nov 05

Berillium (Be) is very nasty stuff if breathed in as dust. Occupation illnesses associated with chronic Be exposure have led to lawsuits and workplace exposure limits. Not a good thing to put in mass produced consumer products that could eventually be volatilized (burned up or ground to dust. This one is right up on the toxicity list with Cadmium, Lead and Arsenic. One has to wonder what the developers are thinking about in selecting Be? For a military application that is very narrow in scope or as a dilute constituent: maybe ok. But for a consumer product such a choice makes one wonder if they had access to Google or an OSHA manual.

Posted by: John Laumer on 18 Nov 05

The reason Be is included is because it has a small atomic diameter. These amorphous alloys tend to have atoms with widely different diameters, since this frustrates crystallization and enables thick castings to cool before crystals can form.

The holy grail is an amorphous steel alloy. Zirconium, titanium, and nickel are rather expensive; iron and carbon are not. I remember reading in Discover the claim that someone had produced an amorphous steel alloy, but I don't see that referenced here.

Posted by: Paul Dietz on 22 Nov 05

If you google on "amorphous steel" you'll find lots of links to recent work on it. There was a paper last year on a new steel alloy that can be cast in bulk yet remain glassy. The secret was adding a small amount of yttrium to a previously known, somewhat glassy steel. This is another example of frustration due to incompatible atomic sizes; rare earth atoms have notably large diameters.

I believe Liquid Metal has an exclusive license to this alloy, but it is too brittle for immediate application.

Posted by: Paul Dietz on 23 Nov 05

Beryllium is a metal, notoriously dangerous and difficult to manipulate and so can only be manufactured in highly specialised facilities.

In order to recycle this family of alloys they undoublable must be carefully traced. (Health & Security as well as cost of raw materials, cf. other comments below)

There are certainly more finer subtlties in the full LCA-Life cycle analysis processing.

It is not surprising that Caltech, DoE etc are involved. Only highly qualified, competent,experienced, reputable manufacturers could consider manufacturing and working with such material families.

The key to changing the world for the better, an urgent task, is more likely to be found by better employment of traditional highly recyclable materials such as steel,imposing stringent quality & LCA control, wider spread introduction of long-life, enegy saving devices such as LED's (Light Emitting Diodes) for example. This does not mean that new research in materials and processes should be reduced. Perhaps more attention should be given to by reaseach and industry to the innovation process.
cf. my "Conversations on Innovations" link chemweb via

Posted by: James Alexander on 24 Nov 05



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