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Aug 29, 2012
Nanocrystalline Algorithm Means More Alloys to Come
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The size of small crystal "grains" in metal on the order of a few dozen micrometers in size.Trial and error is rarely fun, let’s be honest. Isolating effective metallic combinations for stable Nanocrystalline is likely no exception, though to be fair I have not been experimenting with alloys in my free time. Fortunately a recent MIT study has demonstrated that this guesswork can be accomplished via an algorithm. This mathematical model essentially allows metallurgists to isolate which elements can be added to a solvent to create stable and temperature-resistant structures through an increased focus on grain boundaries (as opposed to even distribution of nanocrystals). This means more variance in Nanocrystalline materials will be seen in the market sooner, which is good news. What’s most interesting here is two parts: what the equation may or may not be capable of producing and who is waiting to see just what kind of alloys may become available.


The patent pending, filed in March 2012 by Professor Chris Schuh and graduate student Heather Murdoch, hinges upon the prediction of stable Nanocrystalline binary alloys. “The model generates a nanocrystalline phase behavior map that can predict the existence of a stable nanoscaled microstructure in phase-separating binary alloys.” What’s most interesting here is that the methodology behind developing each binary alloy is what is patented, not the specific recipes. This creates an interesting potential for MIT to leverage this IP to generate alloys that would be useful in various industries.

ApplicationA TEM image shows the structure of Chookajorn's tungsten after one week of high-temperature (1,100 degrees) exposure. The allow maintains its nanoscopic features. Image courtesy of Chookajorn et al, from Science

One graduate student, Tongjai Chookajorn, put these projections to the test using tungsten. Through synthesizing tungsten and titanium, Chookajorn demonstrated that Murdoch’s equation can be executed successfully. This particular alloy held up to an enormous amount of heat (about 1,100 degrees Celsius) over the course of 7 days. The application of tungsten and titanium in particular would be useful in militaristic applications, but what makes this discover so interesting is what other combinations of alloys might be quickly discovered and produced as a result of the effectiveness of the algorithm. Some speculation as to which companies might capture the most value if specific alloys are found are likely semiconductor companies (microprocessors in particular) and military equipment developers.

Semiconductors - While the patent itself is for the algorithm and not a specific alloy that might benefit semiconductors specifically (silicon-based), heat resistance is what is critical here. Companies involved in power management (i.e.: Intel, AMD, Fair Child, and International Rectifier) would invest substantial capital to gain access to a patented alloy that demonstrated similar properties as the tungsten and titanium alloy in regards to withstanding heat over extended periods of time. Semiconductors, due to silicon properties, often run the risk of thermal runaway (ultimately decreasing heat resistance). There is large value to be captured in limiting this risk. It is also worth noting in semiconductors that corrosion stands to be potentially mitigated via alloys if the appropriate combinations are found, which would further reduce the risks of electronic failures.

Military - Due to the fact that successful Nanocrystalline alloys have the potential for extremely high strength in addition to heat resistance, militaristic and protective applications also seem a likely result of this research. Impact protection through utilizing these alloys should prove a useful investment on the part of companies such as Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors, as the potential for stronger and more resistant materials is a relevant element of their R&D initiatives.

Alloys similar to Chookajorn's could improve on material succeptibilities like corrosion that limit the lifetimem of electrical componentsWhile these are just two examples, industries invested in construction, energy, marine industries, and aerospace would also benefit from keeping this study in mind as more alloy combinations are unveiled. The potential for improving the characteristics of many critical metals stand to see substantial improvements across a spectrum of applications. It is interesting to note that not only is the formula for deriving these alloys seemingly patentable, but so should be each byproduct of this study. This stands to create huge licensing potential for MIT.

Bottom Line

The most crucial element of the discovery is the potential for more discoveries. While the model was effectively executed using tungsten and titanium, it is difficult to say which other alloys might now be within our reach as a result of no longer needing to go the longer and more wasteful trial and error route when pursuing advancements. It should be interesting to keep an eye on what alloys MIT comes up with next, and reasonable to assume there will be quite a few. This strikes me as a big step in Nanocrystalline development, simplifying the innovative process itself via more effective predictive tools.

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