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DIY Metalhead Hacks Steelmaking Process For Lighter, Stronger Cars, Jets

steel plant

Steel's a done deal, right? A material we know all about, just as we move on to cooler composites? Nope. Someone's just invented new steel that's 7% stronger in a process taking just 10 seconds.

An inventor from Detroit called Gary Cola is behind the innovation, which in itself couldn't be simpler: Steel is rolled through a heat-treating unit which blasts it up to 1,100 Celsius (very hot—carbon steel melts at around 1,400 C), and then very soon after plunged into a cooling liquid bath that quenches it. It takes just 10 seconds.

Steel is often heat-treated to make it stronger in a process that depends on the steel and on the highly IP-protected processes being used to treat it. Heat treating causes tiny imperfections in the steel's structure to migrate and even unravel or tangle in complex ways. High-strength Martensitic steel is made by treating it so its internal structure is extremely perfect, and is composed of a crystalline form of iron called Martensite. These processes use different temperatures and take different amounts of time, but 900 Celsius and several hours is a typical figure.

There are innovative historical preferences, with anecdotal evidence that a particular Roman blacksmith made sword steel by quenching hot steel in the urine of a "redheaded boy" to convert it from iron into stronger steel, and other historic quenching techniques have sought to produce hardened steel by plunging the hot metal into anything from olive oil to flour to honey, milk, and pigeon droppings. Damascus steel was even rumored to be quenched in "dragon's blood."

But Cola's innovation is not only faster than modern methods, it actually results in a steel that's 7% stronger than any ever produced, with a structure loaded with a form of iron called Bainite. It's also stronger and more resistant to shock than the titanium alloys that find use in industries looking for super-strong, super-light materials. And Cola claims it's capable of being drawn into bars or wires 30% more than typical hard steel can without losing its strength.

And get this: Cola isn't a scientist. He's a "self-trained" expert in metallurgy. The production process has been proven, and the product, dubbed Flash Bainite, is now trademarked. And it has quite fantastic implications: Steel that is stronger could be made thinner and carry the same load as more traditional steel—meaning cars and aircraft could be much lighter and retain their strength, which has huge eco-implications in terms of fuel efficiency. The process is also simple, doesn't require exotic materials or treatments, and is speedy, which means there are very few barriers to adopting it in steel mills.

[Image: Flickr user ell-r-brown]

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