David Briddock investigates this revolutionary material
Once in a while a new material comes along and turns
conventional thinking on its head.
Liquid-metal is just such a groundbreaking material. Super strong,
easily shaped and with a unique set of properties related to both metal and
glass, it's beginning to redefine the boundaries of product design.
Functional to desirable
Before we learn more about this material, let's take a
moment to review the materials used so far. The very first PC cases were pretty
rudimentary Metal boxes held together with nuts and bolts or self-tapping
screws were the order of the day These Mercado-style containers suited early
adopters and home-brew communities, who spent as much time tinkering with the
electronic innards as they did with software. Many simply left the cover off,
able to gaze in wonderment at their own piece of computing history.
The metal case persisted for many years. A sizable,
solid-looking beige or grey box, invariable with an octopus-like collection of
trailing wires. With their made-for-business feel, these PCs soon started to
proliferate across office desks up and down the country.
Meanwhile, the home computing and games console movement created
a diverse collection of plastic-enshrouded products.
Ironically, today these designs appear quite Iconic. The PC
seemed largely oblivious to this kind of styling until Apple launched its
original ¡Mac. With Its all-in-one design, organic polycarbonate curves, bright
colors and dearth of wiring, it was aimed squarely at home consumers. The ¡Mac
marked a seminal point where a PC could boldly take Its place as an attractive
piece of living room furniture.
Today, design is a critical part of any technology product.
The level of sales will be just as reliant on a designer's touch as in the
Apple iPhone 5 LiquidMetal
In the laptops and notebooks marketplace, designers
continually battle between lightness and strength. While a workable compromise
ultimately has to be found, the boundaries are always being pushed. Super-slim,
light and elegantly styled notebooks are always more desirable than their
bulkier cousins; even if the price is out of reach for many
“Today design is a critical part of any technology product
Once again, Apple recently leapt ahead of the pack. Its
aluminum anybody MacBook’s embody strength and lightness with enviable looks.
Other manufacturers are integrating exotic materials, such as magnesium and
carbon fiber, into their designs in an effort to steal their own share of the
“Which breakthrough liquid-metal product will capture the
What is a metallic alloy?
Liquid-metal is the trade name for a new class of metallic alloys.
These alloys have a unique amorphous (see box out) atomic structure, more like
glass than steel. Scientists often refer to these materials as 'bulk metallic
glasses' or 'bulk amorphous alloys'. However, in the media the terms 'metallic
glass' or 'glassy metal' are much more popular
At first glance, a liquid-metal alloy looks similar to
stainless steel, albeit with a slightly different tone and hue. However, if you
hold it in your hand, it will have a distinctly warmer feel than metal. The
exact color depends on the alloy's specific composition. Straight from a
casting mold or die, liquid-metal objects exhibit a smooth mirror-like finish,
but satin or brushed finishes are also possible.
The key attributes are super strength and resilience, high
scratch and corrosion resistance, and an ability to be precision cast into
complex shapes. It's a very attractive combination. Plastics are easy to shape
but simply aren't strong enough. Metals have the strength, but complex shapes
are difficult to create. And glass, despite its malleability and beauty, is
just too fragile.
The hardness and strength-to-weight ratio of a liquid-metal
alloy is particularly impressive. Compositions containing zirconium are
considerably stronger than aerospace-grade titanium alloys, and on a par with
the very latest high-strength steels and specialized composite materials.
Apple iMac G3
Unlike steel, these alloys do not exhibit a specific melting
point. This high temperature plasticity allows the manufacturer to exert a
great deal of control over an object's mechanical properties during the casting
or forming operation. With manufacturing techniques being more akin to
thermoplastics than metals, there's huge scope for innovation and refinement.
Their metallic nature also gives rise to an interesting and
useful range of electrical and thermal properties - a factor that considerably
extends the potential usefulness of this material, and once again something
plastics and glass cannot match.
The right recipe
The specific characteristics of a liquid-metal are dictated
by the ingredients. Just like baking a cake, the basics are the same, but a
Victoria sponge, for example, is totally different to carrot cake.
Despite being the subject of research programmed for
decades, new discoveries frequently occur with so many potential recipes to
investigate; each new experiment yields a little more useful information and
can sometimes produce quite unexpected results.
The zirconium range of liquid-metal alloys was discovered by
Atakan Peker, as part of his Ph.D. on the development of bulk metallic glass.
Peker, who now works for Liquid-metal Technologies, successfully added varying
percentages of titanium, copper, nickel, aluminum and beryllium to create the
Vitriol series of alloys - a series that contains elements with an unusually
wide range of atom radii dimensions, which enhance their ability to create and
retain an amorphous state.
However, zirconium isn't mandatory; many other recipes are
possible. In fact, a whole range of glassy materials - each with their own very
specific but equally useful characteristics - are created using a very similar
manufacturing process. All these alloys form tight, strong bonds with a wide
range of natural or manmade materials, including metals, plastics and ceramics.
Original Apple iMac: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IMac_G3en.
Atakan Peker: www.shock.wsu.edu/people/peker.html
Liquid-metal Technologies: www.liquidmetal.com
Genesis Mission: genesismission.jpl.nasa.gov
Metals have a characteristic crystalline structure, with
highly ordered atomic arrangements. In contrast, amorphous metals are
non-crystalline, just as in glass. However, they still exhibit electrical
conductivity properties, unlike glass, which is an insulator.
Special processes are necessary to create a
non-crystalline structure. These include extremely rapid heating and cooling,
physical vapor deposition, solid-state reaction, ion irradiation and
mechanical alloying. Each process has its own challenge.
For example, in rapid cooling, the temperature drop must
reach millions of degrees per second.
However, new techniques are being developed all the time.
And alloys that contain elements with dramatically different atomic radii,
achieve and retain an amorphous state more easily