Tiny Nanometals May Soon Find Their Way Under Your Hood

toy car

The ancient material that launched mankind toward its current tool-wielding, Earth-dominating status is undergoing a nano-revolution. Researchers are forging metal nanoparticles that may do everything from launch rockets with a fraction of the fuel to transmit electrical currents over vast distances. Their unique properties may do something else far more down to earth: make cars perform better.

A typical family car, reports the Technical University of Denmark’s (DTU) National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy, consists of 193 different types of steel, each one designed to be as strong and light as possible. The problem are trade-offs. Vehicles must be much heavier than what is (usually) necessary in order to protect passengers during severe collisions.

But nanostructured metals, composed of extremely small metal particles, are incredibly strong for their weight: The smaller the particle, the stronger the metal. In times of stress, however, these materials become softer relative to ordinary metal–not so good in a head-on collision–and so applications have been limited to things like wires in grand pianos or truck tires. So far, the structural strength needed in a car cash has been out of reach.

Now a researcher at DTU, Tianbo Yu, identified the mechanism–and possible solution–to prevent the tiny metal particles from sliding against each other weakening the material under strain. Yu discovered a way to “lock” these tiny grains using even smaller
particles, which paves the way for things like car components to be made of such

Researchers are only now beginning to identify all the risks and opportunities nanotechnology offers for everything from quantum computing to surgical instruments. But keep an eye on this field; it may soon end up under your hood.

[Image: Flickr user sankarshan]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.