Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Inspired by Nature, Researchers Create Tougher Metal Materials


Drawing inspiration from the structure of bones and bamboo, researchers have found that by gradually changing the internal structure of metals they can make stronger, tougher materials that can be customized for a wide variety of applications – from body armor to automobile parts.

“If you looked at metal under a microscope you’d see that it is composed of millions of closely-packed grains,” says Yuntian Zhu, a professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and senior author of two papers on the new work. “The size and disposition of those grains affect the metal’s physical characteristics.”

This image illustrates the gradient structure concept. Click to enlarge. Image credit: Yuntian Zhu.

“Having small grains on the surface makes the metal harder, but also makes it less ductile – meaning it can’t be stretched very far without breaking,” says Xiaolei Wu, a professor of materials science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Mechanics, and lead author of the two papers.

“But if we gradually increase the size of the grains lower down in the material, we can make the metal more ductile. You see similar variation in the size and distribution of structures in a cross-section of bone or a bamboo stalk. In short, the gradual interface of the large and small grains makes the overall material stronger and more ductile, which is a combination of characteristics that is unattainable in conventional materials.

“We call this a ‘gradient structure,’ and you can use this technique to customize a metal’s characteristics,” Wu adds.

Wu and Zhu collaborated on research that tested the gradient structure concept in a variety of metals, including copper, iron, nickel and stainless steel. The technique improved the metal’s properties in all of them.

The research team also tested the new approach in interstitial free (IF) steel, which is used in some industrial applications.

If conventional IF steel is made strong enough to withstand 450 megapascals (MPa) of stress, it has very low ductility – the steel can only be stretched to less than 5 percent of its length without breaking. That makes it unsafe. Low ductility means a material is susceptible to catastrophic failure, such as suddenly snapping in half. Highly ductile materials can stretch, meaning they’re more likely to give people time to respond to a problem before total failure.

By comparison, the researchers created an IF steel with a gradient structure; it was strong enough to handle 500 MPa and ductile enough to stretch to 20 percent of its length before failing.

The researchers are also interested in using the gradient structure approach to make materials more resistant to corrosion, wear and fatigue.

“We think this is an exciting new area for materials research because it has a host of applications and it can be easily and inexpensively incorporated into industrial processes,” Wu says.

The work is described in two recently published papers: “Synergetic Strengthening by Gradient Structure,” which was published online July 2 in Materials Research Letters, and “Extraordinary strain hardening by gradient structure,” which is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was supported by the U.S. Army Research Office under grants W911NF-09-1-0427 and W911QX-08-C-0083.


Note to Editors: The study abstracts follow.

“Synergetic Strengthening by Gradient Structure”

Authors: X.L. Wu, P. Jiang, L. Chen, J.F. Zhang and F.P. Yuan, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Y.T. Zhu, North Carolina State University

Published: online July 2, Materials Research Letters

DOI: 10.1080/21663831.2014.935821

Abstract: Gradient structures are characterized with a systematic change in microstructures on a macroscopic scale. Here we report that gradient structures in engineering materials such as metals produce an intrinsic synergetic strengthening, which is much higher than the sum of separate gradient layers. This is caused by macroscopic stress gradient and the bi-axial stress generated by mechanical incompatibility between different layers. This finding represents a new mechanism for strengthening that exploits the principles of both mechanics and materials science. It may provide for a new strategy for designing material structures with superior properties.

“Extraordinary strain hardening by gradient structure”

Authors: X.L. Wu, P. Jiang, L. Chen and F.P. Yuan, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Y.T. Zhu, North Carolina State University

Published: online May 5, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1324069111

Abstract: Gradient structures have evolved over millions of years through natural selection and optimization in many biological systems such as bones and plant stems, where the structures gradually change from the surface to interior. The advantage of gradient structures is their maximization of physical and mechanical performance while minimizing material cost. Here we report that the gradient structure in engineering materials such as metals renders a unique extra strain hardening, which leads to high ductility. The grain size gradient under uniaxial tension induces a macroscopic strain gradient and converts the applied uniaxial stress to multi-axial stresses due to the evolution of incompatible deformation along the gradient depth. Thereby accumulation and interaction of dislocations are promoted, resulting in an extra hardening and an obvious strain hardening rate up-turn. Such extraordinary strain hardening, which is inherent to gradient structures and does not exist in homogeneous materials, provides a novel strategy to develop strong and ductile materials by architecting heterogeneous nanostructures.

Matt Shipman | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Bamboo COPPER Iron Metal conventional materials materials stainless steel structures technique

More articles from Materials Sciences:

nachricht The search for dark matter widens
21.03.2018 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht Scientists have a new way to gauge the growth of nanowires
19.03.2018 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

All articles from Materials Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

TRAPPIST-1 planets provide clues to the nature of habitable worlds

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

The search for dark matter widens

21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Natural enemies reduce pesticide use

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>