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February 9th, 2010
Microscopic pillars carved out of brittle metal alloys could make future spacecraft parts less prone to snap under high tension.
The alloys, known as metallic glasses, behave much like ceramics: they keep their shape under high loads - in other words, they have a high tensile strength - but snap at lower tensile limits than metals. They are also comparatively light, making them attractive as structural materials, says Julia Greer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, whose team nanosculpted the metallic glasses.
Changing the ratio of surface area to volume can dramatically alter a material's physical properties, so Greer and her colleague Dongchan Jang wondered if metallic glasses would behave more like metals - strong but ductile - at the nanoscale.
To find out, Jang used a focused ion beam to carve an amorphous alloy of the metal zirconium into barbell-shaped pillars 100 nanometres across the shaft.
The beam bombarded the alloy with heavy gallium ions to cut away its structure. "It's very difficult to do," says Greer. "The pillars can topple over if they are too thin, and simply annihilating the pillar with the beam accidentally is possible, too."
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