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New ‘liquid smart metal’ can go hard or floppy

(from www.theregister.co.uk)

Top boffins in Germany and China say they have developed a remarkable new type of material which can switch from being strong and hard to soft and squashy at the touch of a button.

Jörg Weißmüller, materials scientist at both the Technical University of Hamburg and the Helmholtz Geesthacht Zentrum für Material- und Küstenforschung, has carried out research on the new "smart metal", working in cooperation with colleagues from the Institute for Metal Research in Shenyang, China. Weißmüller describes the achievements as "a breakthrough in the material sciences".

"For the first time we have succeeded in producing a material which, while in service, can switch back and forth between a state of strong and brittle behavior and one of soft and malleable," says the prof. "We are still at the fundamental research stage but our discovery may bring significant progress in the development of so-called smart materials.”

The German and Chinese scientists have achieved this by taking metals – in experiments so far, gold or platinum – and corroding them using acid. This creates minute ducts and holes in the metal, and the result is a nano-structured porous material.

The pores are then filled up with a conductive liquid such as saline solution, creating what the Helmholtz Zentrum scientists describe as "a true hybrid material of metal and liquid". Passing an electric signal through this hybrid stuff can cause huge changes in its properties.

According to a statement from the Zentrum für Material- und Küstenforschung:

Specific applications are still a matter for the future. However, researchers are already thinking ahead. In principle, the material can create electric signals spontaneously and selectively, so as to strengthen the matter in regions of local stress concentration. Damage, for instance in the form of cracks, could thereby be prevented or even healed. This has brought scientists a great step closer to their objective of ‘intelligent’ high performance materials.

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