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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Note: Super Sturdy Steel

Air Date: Week of

An entrepreneur in Detroit has invented a process that could reshape the metal industry. Daniel Gross reports on a mighty new type of steel.


GROSS: Steel is centuries old, and today it has to compete with the low weight of aluminum and the high strength of titanium. But a revolution in processing technology could make steel the strongest and lightest metal around.

A Detroit machinist experimented with heat-blasting sheets of steel and immediately quenching them in water. He called the end product Flash Bainite, and it’s a striking seven percent stronger than the most advanced steels. It’s also 30% more ductile, which means it stretches farther without breaking.

Steel comes from iron. Pure iron is soft, but heating it beyond melting temperature infuses it with useful carbon impurities. Scaling back the carbon to a controlled level turns it into steel. But advanced steels require a second heat treatment to strengthen them on a molecular level. This usually takes hours, but the Flash Bainite requires less than 10 seconds. It’s produced at 1100 degrees, hotter than the standard 900.

Some scientists and steelmakers are skeptical of the new metal. But it’s slowly catching on. Test results have been confirmed in an engineering journal, and the super steel may be picked up by manufacturers in the near future.

Flash Bainite could be useful in industries that need exceptionally strong and ductile metals, like transportation and civil engineering. It could even be used for building spacecraft - giving an Iron Age technology a Space Age function.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Daniel Gross.




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