Intermetallics could be the key to faster jets and more efficient car engines. But these heat-resistant, lightweight compounds have stumped scientists for decades. Why do so many break so easily? A team from Brown University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and UES Inc. used the world’s most powerful electron microscope to see, for the first time, atomic details that may provide the answer for the most common class of intermetallics. Their results – which could open the door for new materials for commercial use – are published in the current issue of Science.
Atomic resolution Z-contrast image from the world’s most powerful microscope of a non-defective region of Cr2Hf. In this view, the hafnium atoms appear yellow and the chromium atoms are red. (Image: Sharvan Kumar)
Intermetallics can withstand searing heat and are often lightweight. These properties intrigue the aerospace, defense, energy and automotive industries, which are experimenting with this class of materials in hopes of building high-performance jet engines, improved rocket motors and missile components, more efficient steam turbines and better car engine valves.
Many intermetallics, however, break easily. These compounds are typically stronger than simple metals at high temperatures. Yet they are almost as fragile as ceramics at room temperature. This fragility limits their commercial use.
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