New Clemson research method opening ‘tiny doors’ in manufacturing

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Clemson study
Clemson University Material Scientist Fadi Abdeljawad pictured with researchers. Photo provided.

In a world one thousand times smaller than a broken piece of human hair, Clemson researchers say some of the crystals in metal can “grow and shrink like bath bubbles, and understanding how materials form and evolve at this small scale will have tremendous implications on the manufacturing and processing industries.”

The Clemson study explores how metal crystals behave under high temperatures and mechanical forces.

Traditionally, the research has been “trial and error,” but “we are now witnessing a paradigm shift in our approach where physics-based models could provide tools to revolutionize and optimize the manufacturing of materials,” Clemson University materials scientist Fadi Abdeljawad said.

“When you fabricate nanometals and the crystals are just a few nanometers in size, the strength of the metal increases by at least a factor of 10,” he continued. “If you gain that much in strength, you can design lighter structures.”

Fadi predicts the automotive and aerospace sectors could benefit tremendously from the research.

Knowing how to make ultra-lightweight materials with enhanced properties “will lead to safer and more economical cars,” he said. In addition, “lighter airplanes will mean less fuel consumption and cheaper tickets.”

By 2025, the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards will mandate that manufacturers produce passenger vehicles averaging 54.5 miles per gallon.

In its most recent sustainability report, Harald Krüger, CEO of BMW Group, said the luxury automaker has been continuously increasing the efficiency of its combustion engines for many years.

Clemson study
A rendering of an atomistic structure of nanocrystalline nickel. Each set of atoms with the same color represents a crystal, which is a nanometer in size. Image provided.

“Our goal is emission-free mobility,” he said. In 2018, “we delivered more than 140,000 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids worldwide.”

To lower fuel demands in aircraft operation, companies like Boeing are using plastic composites as the chief material to build the airframes for their new Dreamliner. As a bonus, the use of lighter materials can have a significant impact on aerospace defense, as well.

Investing in future technologies and transformative materials will generate long-term benefits for stakeholders, customers, and the broader industry at large, said Atherton Carty, director at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

And yet, “metals in automotive and aircraft construction will never be fully replaced due to the high temperatures or extreme environments involved in operation,” Fadi said.

“Fundamental insights from our work will aid in the design and development of materials with optimized properties,” he continued. “While the future will involve developing systems that combine the enticing properties of all classes of materials, metals will remain central to many structural, electronic, energy and functional applications.”

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