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Scientists learn to build better metals by freezing alloys in space


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Metals are full of microscopic structures that define properties like strength, but it’s hard to figure out how those structures work on Earth, where gravity skews their effects. An experiment aboard the International Space Station may have solved that dilemma, however. By freezing alloys in the station’s extra-low gravity, scientists tracked the growth of microstructures in a pure environment and revealed a wealth of data about how metal forms. For example, the structures sometimes “breathe” (really, ripple) as they grow — if you’re not careful when producing metal, those tiny shapes will either break or disappear altogether.

This not-quite-zero-G lab test could mean a lot for metalworking back on our home planet. Now that it’s easier to understand how metal behaves on a very small scale, the hope is that you’ll see more metals tailored for specific results. You could see materials with structures that are more flexible, stronger or hold up better in extreme temperatures. If one of your future devices is harder to break thanks to some rearrangements at an almost imperceptible level, you’ll know who to thank.

[image credit: Nathalie Bergeon, Institut Matériaux Microélectronique Nanosciences de Provence]


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