Alloys – the mixing of a metal with other agents to enhance its properties – have been around as a technology for more than four millennia. Today it represents a huge sphere of R&D that impacts all our lives on a daily basis.

The cars that we drive are packed with alloys designed to maximise strength, reduce weight and increase desirability. The phones in our pockets contain alloys, often fiercely defended with a plethora of patents. The chips that power our computers are built with carefully formulated alloys. They are an integral part of modern life.

If you are innovating in the production, manipulation or application of alloys, your company will likely qualify for research and development tax credits. These can help you fund further innovations and grow your company.

Let’s explore the challenges in developing, working with, and finding use for alloys to see some of the examples of R&D that are taking place.

Alloy production techniques

Alloys are sometimes developed to achieve a particular characteristic – strength or hardness for example – that the developers can then license out to the wider market.  Other times they may be developed to solve a specific problem that is already being encountered. There are three broad ways in which an alloy can be produced.

‘Solid solution’ is the standard method of alloy production. In simple terms, all the ‘ingredients’ are melted into a liquid state, mixed together and cooled down to reform as a solid.

An alternative method is known as powder metallurgy. Here, the components are converted into a powdered format before being mixed. They are then fused together by subjecting them to high pressure and high temperature.

A second alternative is ion implantation which fires beams of ions into the surface of the target metal. R&D activity could revolve around experimentation with the components of the alloy or adjustments to the development process.

Experimenting with alloy formulation

Looking at a classic material, Steel is an alloy composed of iron as the main metal and carbon as the added agent which typically forms up to 2.1% of the weight. The key benefit of steel over iron is its strength as well as being easier to shape and offering improved ductility. However, by experimenting with the proportion of carbon and adding other agents a range of properties can be achieved. Introducing a low proportion of carbon for example (approximately 0.25%) produces steel that is more easily shaped. A useful property in the manufacture of car body panels. A high-carbon steel – which may contain up to 2.5% carbon – is very hard and is often the first choice for producing cutting tools. Meanwhile adding chromium and nickel to iron results in stainless steel – something we are all familiar with around the kitchen as it is a preferred material for utensils and cutlery due to its anti-rusting properties.

Developing superalloys

Getting more complicated, let’s look at superalloys, a specific class of alloys that that are prevalent in turbine engines. These have to withstand incredible mechanical strain, heat and have resistance to corrosion. The precise nature of these alloys means that research and development into their chemical composition and process development has been ongoing for decades. Nickel is often the main metal with agents including elements from metal, metalloid and non-metal classes such as titanium boron and cobalt. In gas turbines at 1,000 degrees Celsius, these alloys can retain strengths in excess of that of steel at room temperature. With exposure to such extreme conditions and so many combinations of element and proportion available, it is clear that there is vast scope for iterative R&D in the development of new superalloys through experimenting with the main metals and agents.

As hinted at earlier, process development (i.e. the method used to create the alloy) is an equally ripe area of R&D within alloy development. Different rates of solidification for instance can produce different crystalline structures. This in itself will be a key factor in developing properties such as strength.

Such refinement was not possible before the 1940s when a cold wrought process was used and superalloys were iron based. In the 1940s investment in casting techniques allowed for much higher operating temperatures and in the 1950s, the development of vacuum melting brought in an era of close temperature control and a reduction in contaminants making the whole process far more precise.

Coatings for superalloys

Coatings are another important stage in the development of superalloys. These can help the alloy cope with the high working temperatures and corrosive conditions. Again there are many different established techniques for applying coatings to superalloys. Experimenting with the most appropriate technique for the alloy and coating being applied could well qualify as R&D. Pack cementation, thermal spraying, plasma spraying, gas phase coating and bond coating are all examples of current coating techniques.

Future alloy production techniques

What about the alloys and development processes of the future? Industries such as aerospace, marine, defence and automotive require ever more advanced alloys and efficient ways of producing them. Sandia National Labs in America is working on a revolutionary new technique known as radiolysis. This deconstructs the molecular structure of materials to form nanoparticles. It’s advanced stuff that goes off in a completely different direction. Similarly innovative work by UK companies – whether resulting in success or not – would be likely to qualify for R&D tax credits to aid further development.

Manipulating and finishing alloys

Given their specialist properties, one of the biggest challenges in working with alloys can be in manipulating or finishing the material into its final use. How do you efficiently cut or shape an alloy that has been designed to be immensely strong for instance?

Certain aluminium alloys have become favourites in the automotive sector due to their light weight and comparative strength which leads to greater fuel economy as an end benefit. However, they have relatively low formability which means they are more prone to fracture or wrinkling. Something of problem when producing complicated parts like door and boot panels. At the same time there is now greater demand for good definition. This all adds up to tricky technical challenges to overcome.

Companies and other organisations are pouring significant funds into research and development to come up with solutions. One technique that has been demonstrating good results is ‘warm forming’ where aluminium alloy panels are moderately heated before being machine stamped. Formability levels of aluminium alloys increase at higher temperatures making the stamping process more reliable.

As would be expected with innovative R&D, the process is not without its problems which include how to heat machine components in a controlled way, lubrication, cycle time and higher costs. Various techniques are being studied, for instance: quick plastic forming, warm hydroforming and isothermal warm forming in heated dies.

Work in this field highlights the issue of how, even after an alloy has been identified as a great material for a specific purpose, comprehensive R&D may be required to deliver it at an acceptable cost and level of quality.

What is LiquidMetal® and how is it being used?

Our journey so far has walked through alloy development and finishing – but how about real world application?

One of the most exciting alloys of recent times is called LiquidMetal®. Even James Bond has it in his latest watch! It was created by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and has a unique amorphous atomic structure that isn’t crystalline like most metals – instead, it is what is known as a metallic glass.

Properties of LiquidMetal®

This gives it a wide range of desirable properties that other alloys cannot compete with as a complete package. These include: strength, dimensional control and repeatability, a brilliant surface finish, hardness (scratch/wear resistance), elasticity, corrosion resistance and the ability to be moulded into complex shapes. An impressive list of properties and for companies that need several of them in combination it could offer them a unique solution.

LiquidMetal® in action

One such case is CoNextions who were looking to innovate in the field of soft tissue tendon repair. Current suture-based methods of administering treatment had apparently reached their limit yet were expensive and led to long recovery times. CoNextions solution required a surgical implement that included a significant Liquidmetal® component. The desired properties included hardness, strength, resistance to corrosion and the ability to be moulded into a complex shape. As Liquidmetal® can tick all those boxes it presented a cost-effective way forward for the company, which might have otherwise been unavailable had they needed to meet the spec in several phases of manufacturing process.

Nasa has, in the past, expressed interest in Liquidmetal® citing in particular the moulding and strength properties it combines, which may mean it can trump plastics and steel as materials of choice for aerospace and space exploration.

Apple is another organisation that has a deep interest in LiquidMetal®. They have had an exclusive license since 2010 and renewed it again for a further year this June. Rumours have been flying around for a while that they will develop an iPhone or even Macbook case made of LiquidMetal® but for now this is perhaps a few years off. An interesting interview with one of the co-discovers of LiquidMetal® on the subject can be read here. They have, though, been busy filing patents relating to melting and casting amorphous alloys – a technical term for LiquidMetal’s® material class.

Apple do have one thing to show for all their interest in LiquidMetal® – some of the SIM ejector tools over the years have been made of the stuff. Slightly underwhelming perhaps, but useful for Apple in testing mass-production technique for this interesting material.

So it appears that, whilst a remarkable material, LiquidMetal® does not offer all the answers to companies looking to exploit its properties. Indeed, some early application in golf clubs designed to make the most of its energy transferring properties had to be abandoned after the clubs in question became prone to shattering in spectacular fashion. But all these examples serve to highlight the ongoing nature of R&D when dealing with advanced materials.

More advanced alloys

Another interesting field of alloy research is that of smart materials. Shape memory alloys for instance can have their shape changed and then returned to their original form by temperature, magnetic or stress stimulation.  We have explored these in more detail in a previous blog on smart materials, so will not go into further detail here. Suffice to say that shape memory alloy application is a fascinating area of research and development.

Are you experimenting with alloys, superalloys or LiquidMetal®?

If you are at the cutting edge of alloy formulation, production, finishing or application in the UK you should make sure you have explored the role R&D tax credits could play in funding your work. The government wants to help innovators like you succeed, and does so by providing tax credits that could effectively cover up to 33% of qualifying costs. ForrestBrown are specialists in R&D tax credits and can help you identify and maximise your tax credit claim relating to research and development with alloys. For a free and no-obligation consultation call us today on 0117 926 9022.

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