A titanium alloy, stronger than any commercial titanium alloy currently on the market, gets its strength from the novel way atoms are arranged to form a special nanostructure. For the first time, researchers have been able to see this alignment and then manipulate it to make the strongest titanium alloy ever developed, and with a lower cost process to boot.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) knew the titanium alloy made from a low-cost process they had previously pioneered had very good mechanical properties, but they wanted to know how to make it even stronger. Using powerful electron microscopes and a unique atom probe imaging approach they were able to peer deep inside the alloy’s nanostructure to see what was happening. Once they understood the nanostructure, they were able to create the strongest titanium alloy ever made.

At 45% the weight of low-carbon steel, titanium is a lightweight but not super-strong element. It is typically blended with other metals to make it stronger. Fifty years ago, metallurgists tried blending it with inexpensive iron, along with vanadium and aluminium. The resulting alloy, called Ti185 was very strong, but only in places. The mixture tended to clump, just like any recipe can. Iron clustered in certain areas creating defects known as beta flecks in the material making it difficult to commercially produce this alloy reliably.

Much like a medieval blacksmith, researchers knew that they could make this alloy even stronger by heat-treating it. Heating the alloy in a furnace at different temperatures and then plunging it into cold water essentially rearranges the elements at the atomic level in different ways thereby making the resulting material stronger.

Blacksmithing has now moved from an art form to a more scientific realm. Although the underlying principles are the same, metallurgists are now better able to alter the properties based on the needs of the application. The PNNL team knew if they could see the microstructure at the nano-scale they could optimise the heat-treating process to tailor the nanostructure and achieve very high strength.

“We found that if you heat treat it first with a higher temperature before a low temperature heat treatment step, you could create a titanium alloy 10-15% stronger than any commercial titanium alloy currently on the market and that it has roughly double the strength of steel,” said Arun Devaraj, a material scientist at PNNL.

“This alloy is still more expensive than steel but with its strength-to-cost ration, it becomes much more affordable with greater potential for lightweight automotive applications,” added Vineet Joshi, a metallurgist at PNNL.

If you take the force you are pulling with and divide it by the area of the material you get a measure of tensile strength in megapascals. Steel used to produce vehicles has a tensile strength of 800-900 megapascals, whereas the 10-15% increase achieved at PNNL puts Ti185 at nearly 1700 megapascals, or roughly double the strength of automotive steel while being almost half as light.

The team collaborated with Ankit Srivastava, an assistant professor at Texas A&M’s material science and engineering department to develop a simple mathematical model for explaining how the hierarchical nanostructure can result in the exceptionally high strength.

The model, when compared with the microscopy results and processing, led to the discovery of the strongest titanium alloy ever made.

“This pushes the boundary of what we can do with titanium alloys,” said Devaraj. “Now that we understand what’s happening and why this alloy has such high strength, researchers believe they may be able to modify other alloys by intentionally creating microstructures that look like the ones in Ti185.”

For instance, aluminium is a less expensive metal and if the nanostructure of aluminium alloys can be seen and hierarchically arranged in a similar manner, that would also help the auto industry build lighter vehicles that use less fuel and put out less carbon dioxide that contributes to climate warming.

Only time will tell how soon vehicle manufacturers will take on titanium as a source of stronger and lighter material for future automobiles.