Recent work by scientists at UNSW Australia in Sydney should make creating new types of 'metallic glass', a futuristic material that is ultra-strong and ultra-flexible, much easier and cheaper in the future. This follows their development of a model that can predict for the first time which combinations of metals will best form these useful materials.

Metallic glass behaves more like glass or plastic than metal. While still being metals, they become as malleable as chewing gum when heated and can be easily molded or blown like glass. They are also, on average, three times stronger and harder than ordinary metals, making them among the toughest materials known.

“They have been described as the most significant development in materials science since the discovery of plastics more than 50 years ago,” says study author Kevin Laws.

"They [metallic glasses] have been described as the most significant development in materials science since the discovery of plastics more than 50 years ago."Kevin Laws, UNSW Australia

Most metals are crystalline when solid, with their atoms arranged in a highly organized and regular manner. Metallic glass alloys, on the other hand, have a highly disordered structure, with the atoms arranged in a non-regular way.

“There are many types of metallic glass, with the most popular ones based on zirconium, palladium, magnesium, titanium or copper,” explains Laws. “But until now, discovering alloy compositions that form these materials has required a lengthy process of trial and error in the laboratory.”

In the new study, published in Nature Communications, Laws and his colleagues describe a unique new model of the atomic structure of metallic glass, which allows them to predict those metal combinations that will possess glass-forming ability. So far, they have used their model to successfully predict more than 200 new metallic glass alloys based on magnesium, silver, copper, zinc and titanium.

“With our new instruction manual we can start to create many new useful metallic glass-types and begin to understand the atomic fundamentals behind their exceptional properties,” says Laws. “We will also be able to engineer these materials on an atomic scale so they have the specific properties we want.”

"Metallic glass alloys are expensive to manufacture and to date have only been used in niche products, such as ejector pins for iPhones, watch springs for expensive hand-wound watches, trial medical implants, and tennis rackets and golf clubs. They are also planned for use in the next Mars rover vehicle.

"But if they become easier and cheaper to make, they could be widely used in many applications including as exceptionally strong components in personal electronic devices, in space exploration vehicles, and as hydrogen storage materials in next generation batteries."

This story is adapted from material from UNSW Australia, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.