For the past several years, carbon fiber has been seen as the Holy Grail of light yet sturdy materials that could pave the way for better performing, more fuel efficient cars. However, the cost of the material and the ability to produce it in the huge volumes needed for mass-produced cars have limited its availability to all but a handful of enthusiast and performance-oriented offerings, though that is starting to change with developments like BMW’s new Carbon Core technology that debuted in the latest 7-Series.
Now, researchers from UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering in Los Angeles, California say they’ve come up with a new metal which, like carbon fiber, is light yet “exceptionally strong.” In a paper published in the scientific journal Nature, the researchers state the metal is composed of magnesium infused with a dense and even dispersal of ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles. The final mixture is about 14 percent silicon carbide nanoparticles and 86 percent magnesium.
Magnesium is already used extensively in cars because of its lightweight properties, but it isn’t very stiff. In contrast, the new metal has an extremely favorable stiffness-to-weight ratio, known in scientific circles as the “modulus,” and initial testing has shown “record levels” of specific strength (how much weight a material can withstand before breaking). It's also said to be resilient even in very high temperatures. This makes it ideal for structural purposes such as in airplanes, buildings, cars and even spacecraft, though the researchers say it could also prove beneficial in the mobile electronics and biomedical devices industries.
The basic materials that make up the metal are commonly found but the real hurdle was finding a way to disperse and stabilize the nanoparticles while the magnesium was in a molten state. Importantly, the researchers say they have also developed a scalable manufacturing method which can be applied to more materials than just magnesium.
Unfortunately, it might be some time until we see such materials used in car production as the researchers concluded that they are just scratching the surface of this new discovery.