From what I’ve read, the most challenging aspect of being a materials scientist is the constant fight to improve on a product’s strength (i.e. make it stronger, or make it more brittle or malleable). This almost always results in having to make compromises due to the conflicting properties. New research out of the Technical University of Hamburg and the Helmholtz Center in Geesthacht may have found an ingenious solution with the invention of a new nanometal that can go back and forth from being hard to soft at the flip of a switch. Popular Science explains:
The material is essentially an electrically tunable metal that can be hard and brittle or soft and malleable depending on the charge passing through it. To create the material, researchers placed precious metals like gold and platinum in an acidic bath, where corrosion cuts tiny porous channels or ducts through the metal. Those interior channels are then filled with a conductive liquid partner, like a diluted acid or saline solution. Ions dissolved in the liquid can then influence the surface atoms of the metallic part of this metal-liquid combo. Depending on the charge applied to the liquid constituent, electrons are either added to or withdrawn from the metallic surface atoms, strengthening the material by double or making it more malleable and weaker (but more tolerant to damage) at will.
Engineers are incredibly excited about the new possibilities and range of applications this will now open up. Perhaps the most fascinating would be the development of self-healing materials capable of responding to stress (i.e. materials that can become softer or harder depending on what is required). Amazing. You can read more at Popular Science.
Source: Popular Science