The problem with trying to increase strength in ordinary metals is that their atoms are organized in a crystal lattice, Demetriou explains. "And whenever you try to make something as perfect as a crystal, inevitably you will create defects," he says. Those defects, under stress, become mobile, and other atoms move easily around them, producing permanent deformations. While this rearrangement around defects results in an ability to block or cap off an advancing crack, producing toughness, it also limits the strength of the material.
On the other hand, glass has an amorphous structure, its atoms scattered about without a specific discernible pattern. In metallic glassesalso called amorphous metals because of their structurethis results in an absence of the extended defects found in crystalline metals. The actual defects in glasses are generally much smaller in size and only become active when exposed to much higher stresses, resulting in higher strengths. However, this also means that the strategy used in ordinary metals to stop a crack from growing ever longerthe easy and rapid rearrangement of the atoms around defects into a sort of cap at the leading edge of a crackis not available.
"When defects in the amorphous structure become active under stress, they coalesce into slim bands, called shear bands, that rapidly extend and propagate through the material," says Demetriou. "And when these shear bands evolve into cracks, the material shatters."
It was this tendency to shatter that was thought to be one of the limiting factors of metallic glasses, which were first developed in the 1960s at Caltech. The assumption was that, despite their many benefits, they could never match or exceed the toughness of the toughest steels.
But what the Caltech scientists found, much to their surprise, was that creating more of a problem could actually solve the probl
|Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges|
California Institute of Technology