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May 15th, 2005
Metals with nanoscale grain sizes can be stronger than ordinary metals, but they may also be highly susceptible to fatigue: the gradual growth of cracks under repeated cycles of stress and release. Computer simulations of the atomic-scale processes involved in the cracking of a nanocrystalline metal have now helped to clarify the reasons for this Achilles' heel.
The key problem that Diana Farkas and her colleagues at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg have overcome in conducting their investigation is how to bridge the different scales at which the issue of cracking must be considered. Although the basic process by which a crack propagates through a metal involves sliding of individual planes of atoms in the crystalline material, the big picture becomes apparent only when one draws back to the scale of many tens of nanometres — which encompasses enormous numbers of atoms.
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