Monday, October 31, 2011

Cheaper Shape-Shifting Smart Material Alloys In The Pipeline, Due in 2013

An international team of scientists led by the University of Zagreb in Croatia have pushed the envelope by developing materials that remember their original shape and switch from one form to another at a much lower cost. Backed by EUREKA, a platform for research and development (R&D)-performing entrepreneurs in Europe that comprises 39 partners including the European Commission, Professor Mirko Gojic of the University of Zagreb and his team investigated how to drop the price of 'smart metals' and develop a product that could be brought to market by 2013.

Titanium- and nickel-based alloy is too expensive
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Researchers recognise the high cost of alloy used to produce shape memory materials based on nickel and titanium. The development of a cheaper product could lead to the manufacturing of a cheaper alloy for use in aerospace engineering or electronics. Enter the RSSMA ('Rapidly solidified shape memory alloys') project, which has developed an inexpensive alternative.

The flexible characteristic of shape memory alloys can lead to the production of various shapes and sizes for various uses. While they are not as strong as steel, their elasticity and properties make them a select choice for shapes that are exposed to high temperatures. These can be used in robotics, smart phones and even medical equipment. Nickel-titanium alloy balloons, that expand and adapt to the shape of a blood vessel when exposed to body temperatures, are used in stent grafts and surgery, for instance.

The cheaper alloy produced by Professor Gojic and colleagues is based on copper. Today's most popular alloy, and also the most expensive one, is produced on a 50:50 mix of titanium and nickel called 'Nitinol'. Professor Gojic and his team's latest product is just what the industry needs.

'We are not the only ones to put our efforts into research on copper alloys,' says Professor Gojic. 'We contributed to the extent of the possibilities offered by our infrastructure and benefited greatly from collaborations with international partners.'

Because the Croatian team lacked the facilities to manufacture the new alloy, the EUREKA grant enabled them to expand an existing collaboration with colleagues from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maribor, Slovenia. The latter helped the Croatian team to produce the alloys, which were then tested and examined for their characteristics in Croatia. Professor Gojic and colleagues also worked with experts at Montanuniversität Leoben in Austria, and the Faculty of Natural Science and Engineering of the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

'It is difficult to know exactly how much cheaper the final product will be — it is an important economic parameter to evaluate the success of the project — and it depends partly on techniques used to produce the alloy,' Professor Gojic points out, 'but it would certainly be a cost-effective alternative, as titanium and nickel are far more expensive raw materials than copper and aluminium.' He goes on to say, 'Tests so far have shown that we are on the right way and we should be able to enter soon in the production phase. We have successfully reached the final stages of the research and testing, notably in setting up a process of "continuous casting", which is crucial for commercial production. It is important because it allows you to get an important quantity of semi-product, you can make it without interruptions, allowing for mass production, as it is done with other common metallic materials, such as steel.'

Once the team conducts more research, they can deliver a final product and launch it on the market.

Contacts and sources:
University of Zagreb

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