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Metal Manufacture Breakthrough Promises Transformer Objects

A novel manufacturing process for shape-memory alloys could bring shape-shifting jewelery and transforming stents.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have developed a process for making "smart materials" that can change into multiple different shapes at different temperatures.

Smart materials, also known as shape memory alloys, are metals that remember their original shape and will return to that shape at a specific temperature. They're used in various defense systems, medical devices, printers, hard drives, vehicle components, valves, and actuators.

The first such alloy to see practical use was made of nickel and titanium. Discovered by the U.S. Naval Ordinance Laboratory, the alloy was commercialized under the name Nitinol, an acronym capturing its elemental components and its provenance. Nitinol couplers has been used since the 1960s in F-14 fighter jets to join hydraulic lines.

Until now, shape memory alloys have only been able to remember two distinct shapes, one at high temperatures and one at low temperatures.

The scientists at the University of Waterloo have figured out how to make smart materials that can remember multiple pre-determined shapes and can assume those shapes at specific temperatures. The process is referred to as "Multiple Memory Material Technology."

Ibraheem Khan, a research engineer with the University of Waterloo's Centre for Advanced Materials Joining, said in a phone interview that the process has so many potential applications that it has been hard to figure out which to pursue first.

"One of the applications we're looking at is jewelery, where we can make a flower and if it touches the human body, it will start to open up," he said.

But the most compelling applications, Khan said, are likely to be in industries like aerospace and medical devices. For example, multi-memory material could be used to create a stent for angioplasty patients that opens over time, he suggested. He also said that whereas previous smart materials have had limited applications due to their limited number of states, multi-memory alloys might be well suited for aviation components like ailerons that require a wide range of motion and angles.

The Multiple Memory Material Technology process, applied using a local energy source like a laser or electron beam, is precise, said Khan. It can be used on an area of only a few microns or a much larger area. With an alloy like Nitinol, it can be used to set any number of shape changes between a temperature range of -150 Celsius to +150 Celsius. For other alloys, it can work at temperatures of up to about 600 Celsius. The process can also enhance corrosion resistance.

Khan said the University of Waterloo is working to commercialize the process rapidly and that he hopes it will be licensed and implemented before the end of the year.

Of the various prototypes developed to showcase Multiple Memory Material Technology, one attempts to replicate a transformer robot. The shape-shifting wire-frame figure isn't quite as impressive as its cinematic point of reference, but it does provide a glimpse of the possibilities of this new materials process.

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