Casting a nano future for the metals industry

Posted on 06. Oct, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Annual Report, Economic Impact, Issues, Mechanical Engineering, Research

Aluminum and magnesium alloys hold great potential for manufacturers, as these alloys are much lighter than traditional high-strength materials such as iron and steel. However, most high-strength aluminum and magnesium alloys are difficult to cast because these materials tend to crack as they solidify in casting molds.

This “hot tearing” is a major barrier to expanding commercial uses for these alloys. Companies that use hard-to-cast alloys must cut shapes out of large chunks of the materials with machines—an expensive process that prevents most manufacturers from using alloys to cast products with geometrically complex shapes.

Led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Xiaochun Li, researchers in the Nano-Engineered Metals Processing Center have developed a method to inject and evenly disperse nanoparticles into metal melts. These nanoparticles, which are typically ceramic, induce nucleation in an alloy to refine grain size while shortening its solidification time, which helps prevent hot tearing. Center researchers also are testing an initial industrial system that can handle 20 to 50 pounds of nanocomposite aluminum, a scale necessary for manufacturers to produce actual products.

The center’s industrial partners are ready to begin implementing the research and new system, and Wisconsin-based Eck Industries and Oshkosh Corp. will be first. One early
project with Oshkosh will use an aluminum alloy instead of steel for an armored vehicle door. Currently, a gallon of gas to fuel one of these vehicles on a battlefield costs as much as $300. Using lighter high-strength materials could help reduce such costs.

Future projects will include exploring how to enhance nanocomposite aluminum’s high-temperature properties for power lines or conductor plates and using nanocomposite magnesium to develop body implants and other biomedical devices.

The center’s emphasis on industrial application is supported by a five-year, $10.1 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and joint venture partners. Li is planning to form a nano-engineered metal processing consortium, and more than 60 companies have already expressed interest in working with the center. “Our research really brings a fresh, new frontier to the traditional metals industry,” Li says. “We’re building a new nanotechnology industry on top of this traditional industry.” UW crest

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