Researchers Observe 'Self-Healing' Metals

Researchers Observe 'Self-Healing' Metals

A research team from the Sandia National Laboratories and Texas A&M University have - for the first time ever - witnessed pieces of metal crack, and then fuse back together without any human intervention. The observation overturns several fundamental scientific theories.

Commenting on the observation, Brad Boyce, who is a materials scientist at Sandia, said: 

“This was absolutely stunning to watch first hand. What we have confirmed is that metals have their own intrinsic, natural ability to heal themselves, at least in the case of fatigue damage at the nanoscale”.

If this observed phenomenon could be harnessed, it could have a transformative impact upon engineering in general. 

As Boyd explains, “From solder joints in our electronic devices to our vehicles’ engines to the bridges that we drive over, these structures often fail unpredictably due to cyclic loading that leads to crack initiation and eventual fracture. 

When they do fail, we have to contend with replacement costs, lost time and, in some cases, even injuries or loss of life. The economic impact of these failures is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars every year for the U.S.”

The observation goes against established expectations; “cracks in metal were only ever expected to get bigger, not smaller. Even some of the basic equations we use to describe crack growth preclude the possibility of such healing processes”, said Boyce. 

Whilst the observation is certainly a ‘breakthrough’ moment in materials science, much remains unknown about the self-healing process. Most importantly for industry, it is unknown if this ‘self-healing’ can be a practical tool in a manufacturing setting. 

It is expected that much research will now be undertaken to see if this self-healing can be practically applied. “The extent to which findings are generalisable will likely become a subject of extensive research. We show this happening in nanocrystalline metals in vacuum. But we don’t know if this can also be induced in conventional metals in air”, said Boyce.

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