Scientists Create the Superman of Metals

A new stronger and lighter "nanocomposite" metal could revolutionize the automotive and aircraft industries. REUTERS/Max Rossi

A group of scientists say they have created the Superman of metals, a material so strong and lightweight it could lead to the creation of faster vehicles and revolutionize the airline and automotive industries.

Engineers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used a combination of ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles and magnesium. The new metal boasts a stiffness-to-weight ratio that far surpasses other strong metals that engineers have reliably used for generations. The metal is also capable of absorbing and withstanding high heat without having its integrity altered.  

Nanoparticles are a tiny speck of any material, just 1 to 100 nanometer in size, or a billionth of a meter—not even close to being visible to the naked eye. When the material is scaled down to such a small size, its physical and chemical properties change. In this case, the silicon carbide  nanoparticles were infused into a molten magnesium zinc. Silicon carbide is the hard ceramic material used for cutting blades. This “nanocomposite” metal is made up of approximately 14 percent silicon carbide and 86 percent magnesium by weight.

“It's been proposed that nanoparticles could really enhance the strength of metals without damaging their plasticity, especially light metals like magnesium,” said Xiaochun Li, a professor of manufacturing and engineering at UCLA, in a press statement. “But no groups have been able to disperse ceramic nanoparticles in molten metals until now.”

Magnesium is available in large quantities, meaning it would be easy to produce the material without damage to the environment. It is considered a type of load-bearing metal that is already used to make cars, albeit a weaker version.

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that an object with width between one and 100 namometers would be just barely visible to the naked eye. In fact, such an object would not be visible at all. By way of comparison, the diameter of a strand of human hair is in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 nanometersm, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative.