Proteus, The Shape-Shifting And Possibly Non-Cuttable Material

How cool would it be if there was a material that couldn’t be cut or drilled into? You could make the baddest bike lock, the toughest-toed work boots, or the most secure door. Really, the list of possibilities just goes on and on.

Proteus chews through an angle grinder disc in seconds.

Researchers from the UK and Germany claim that they’ve created such a magical material. It can destroy angle grinder discs, resist drill bits, and widen the streams of water jet cutters.

The material is made of aluminium foam that’s embedded with a bunch of small ceramic spheres. It works by inducing retaliatory vibrations into the cutting tools, which turns the tools’ force back on themselves and quickly dulls their edges.

The creators have named the material Proteus after the elusive and shape-shifting prophet of Greek mythology who would only share his visions of the future with those who could get their arms around him and keep him still. It sounds like this material could give Proteus a run for his money.

The ceramic spheres themselves aren’t indestructible, but they’re not supposed to be. Abrading the spheres only makes Proteus stronger. As the cutting tool contacts them, they’re crushed into dust that fills the voids in the aluminium foam, strengthening the material’s destructive vibratory effect. The physical inspiration for Proteus comes from protective hierarchical structures in nature, like the impact-resistant rind of grapefruit and the tendency of abalone shells to resist fracture under the impact of shark teeth.

How It’s Made

Proteus recipe in pictures.

At this point, Proteus is a proof of concept. Adjustments would likely have to be made before it can be produced at any type of scale. Even so, the recipe seems pretty straightforward. First, an aluminium alloy powder is mixed with a foaming agent. Then the mixture is cold compacted in a compressor and extruded in dense rods. The rods are cut down to size and then arranged along with the ceramic spheres in a layered grid, like a metallurgical lasagna.

The grid is spot-welded into a steel box and then put into a furnace for 15-20 minutes. Inside the furnace, the foaming agent releases hydrogen gas, which introduces voids into the aluminium foam and gives it a cellular structure.

Effects of cutting into a cylinder of Proteus with an angle grinder.

According to their paper, the researchers tried to penetrate the material with an angle grinder, a water jet cutter, and a drill. Of these, the drill has the best chance of getting through because the small point of contact can find gaps more easily, so it’s less likely to hit a ceramic sphere. The researchers also made cylindrical samples without steel cladding which they used to test the compressive strength and prove Proteus’ utility as a structural material for beams and columns. It didn’t fare well initially, but became less compressible as the foam matrix collapsed.

The creation process lends some leeway for customization, because the porosity of the aluminium foam can be varied by changing the bake time. As for the drill bit problem, tightening up security is as easy as adjusting the size and/or density of the ceramic spheres.

In the video after the break, you can watch a chunk of Proteus eat up an angle grinder disc in under a minute. Some may argue about the tool wielder’s technique, but we think there’s something to be said for any material that can destroy a cutting disc that fast. They don’t claim that Proteus is completely impenetrable, but it does look impressive. We wish they would have tried more cutting tools like a gas torch, or experimented with other destructive techniques, like plastic explosives, but we suppose that research budgets only go so far.

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Jan Czochralski And The Silicon Revolution

If you were to travel back in time to the turn of the previous century and try to convince the average person that the grains of sand on just about any beach would be the basis of an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars within 100 years, they’d probably have thought you were crazy. Aside from being coarse, rough, and irritating, sand is everywhere, and convincing anyone of its value would be a hard sell, unless your interlocutor was a real estate visionary with an appreciation of the future value of seaside property and a lot of patience.

Fast forward to our time, and we all know the value of the material that comes from common quartz sand: silicon, specifically the ultra-purified crystals of silicon that end up as the wafers we depend on to build the circuitry of life. The trip from beach to chip foundry is a long and non-obvious one which would not have been possible without the insights of an undistinguished Polish student and one-time druggist who discovered the process that made the Information Age possible: Jan Czochralski.

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Defocused Laser Welding Fabric Proves There’s Many Ways To Slice It

Laser cutters are certainly a Hackerspace staple for cutting fabrics in some circles. But for the few fabrics derived from non-woven plastics, why not try fusing them together? That’s exactly what [Dries] did, and with some calibration, the result is a speedy means of seaming together two fabrics–no needles necessary!

The materials used here are non-woven goods often used in disposable PPE like face masks, disposable aprons, and shoe coverings. The common tool used to fuse non-woven fabrics at the seams is an ultrasonic welder. This is not as common in the hackerspace tool room, but laser cutters may be a suitable stand-in.

Getting the machine into a production mode of simply cranking out clothes took some work. Through numerous sample runs, [Dries] found that defocusing the laser to a spot size of 1.5mm at low power settings makes for a perfect threadless seam. The resulting test pockets are quite capable of taking a bit of hand abuse before tearing. Best of all, the fused fabrics can simply be cut out with another pass of the laser cutter. For fixtures, [Dries] started with small tests by stretching the two fabrics tightly over each other but suggests fixtures that can be pressed for larger patterns.

It’s great to see laser-cutters doubled-up as both the “glue” and “scissors” in a textile project. Once we get a handle on lasering our own set of scrubs, why not add some inflatables into the mix?

The Metal That Never Forgets: Nitinol And Shape-Memory

You’ve likely heard of Nitinol wire before, but we suspect the common base knowledge doesn’t go much beyond repeating that it’s a shape-memory alloy. [Bill Hammack], the Engineer Guy, takes us on a quick journey of all the cool stuff there is to know about Nitinol and shape-memory alloys.

The name itself is like saying Kleenex when you mean tissue, or using the V-word when you mean hook and loop fasteners. The first few letters of Nickel Titanium Naval Ordnance Laboratories combine to form the name of what is essentially a nickel-titanium alloy developed in 1962: Nitinol. It’s called shape-memory because you can stretch or bend it at room temperature and it will return to the original shape when heated at around 75 C (167 F). This particular metal can do that because its bonds form a “twinned structure” of rhombus shapes — bending or stretching moves those rhombuses (or rhombi, take your pick) but doesn’t change which atoms are bonded to one another.

Has this material science excursion bored you to tears yet? That’s why we love [Bill’s] work. He has always done a fantastic job of demystifying common mysticism and this is no different. The video below does a much better job of illustrating what we’ve described above, but also pull out a Nitinol engine for added wow-factor. A straight piece of Nitinol is bent into a loop around two pulleys. The lower pulley is submerged in hot water, causing the Nitinol to want to straighten out, but it loops back to the top pulley, bending and cooling in the air and creating a lever effect that drives the engine. We saw a more complex version of this concept last year.

You know those eyeglass frames you can bend in any way and they’ll  pop back to the original shape? They’re taking advantage of the super-elasticity of Nitinol. [Bill] also recounts uses as stents for medical applications, and oddball engineering tricks in the automotive industry.

It’s great to see the Engineer Guy back. Favorites of ours have been the science behind disposable diapers and the aluminum beverage can. More recently he released Faraday’s lecture series, wrote a book on airships, appeared on Outlaw Tech on the Science Channel, and started a family. Thanks for fitting these illustrative videos in when you can [Bill]!

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What’s The Deal With Transparent Aluminum?

It looks like a tube made of glass but it’s actually aluminum. Well, aluminum with an asterisk beside it — this is not elemental aluminum but rather a material made using it.

We got onto the buzz about “transparent aluminum” as a result of a Tweet from whence the image above came. This Tweet was posted by [Jo Pitesky], a Science Systems Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. [Jo] reported that at a recent JPL technology open house she had the chance to handle a tube of material that looks for all the world like a section of glass tubing, but was billed as transparent aluminum. [Jo] tweeted this because it was an interesting artifact that few people get to play with and she’s right, this is fascinating!

The the material itself is intriguing, and I immediately had practical questions like what is this stuff? What is it good for? How is it made? And is it really aluminum rendered transparent by some science fiction process?

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Know Thy LED

The invention of the LED is one of the most important discoveries of our times. They are everywhere, from our flashlights to household lighting and television sets. We don’t need to tell you that a project with more blinkies is better than a project with fewer blinkies. But an LED is not simply an LED; the sheer variety of LEDs is amazing, and so in this write-up, we’ll take a closer look at how to choose the right LED for your next masterpiece. Continue reading “Know Thy LED”

Carbon Nanotube Transistors Are On The Passing Lane

There are many obstacles in the way to turning carbon nanotubes into something useful. Materials engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have now brought carbon nanotubes (CNTs) one step closer to becoming practically applicable for semiconductor electronics. In particular, the team managed to assemble arrays of carbon nanotube transistors that outperform their silicon-based predecessors.

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