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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Surya: The Search for Utopium
America's top scientist in Iraq explains how the search for developing Iraq's decimated scientific community is like searching for the perfect metal.

By Dr. Challapalli Suryanarayana

The title could be a little interesting for me, but it could be very elusive and also mysterious to other people in the audience. The reason why I chose this title, ďIn Search of Utopium,Ē is because we all know what utopia is. And when I was asked to work on the Iraq desk and also talk about the science and technology collaboration, as Shannon has already described, somebody was commenting very recently, ďThe efforts are -- something like pushing a boulder up a hill and trying to see it falling down again.Ē So pushing up and down, up and down, thatís the way things have been going. So people said itís like a utopia, we donít know what exactly is going to happen after some time. Itís all idealistic, but we donít know whether itís going to be achieved or if thereís a possibility at all.

Similarly with respect to the metallic materials, there are certain alloys, compounds, materials, in general, which are expected to provide all the best combinations of properties, but we donít know whether we will be able to achieve. And the efforts are going on all around the world and what we have been doing is try to minimize the chances of failure and find out what factors really contribute to the production of the material, which has the best combination of all the desirable properties.

So I will very briefly describe our efforts first that are going on at the University of Central Florida, in this direction. Itís not that we are the only people working, there are many other groups working in this country and in other parts of the world, but I would like to focus on our work at this juncture. And Iíve been told that I should say that whatever I am saying here is purely my own and I do not represent the opinions of the U.S. Government. So if there is going to be any blame, it rests on me and if there is going to be any accolade it also is going to rest on me.

So, as Shannon has already explained, we are going to very briefly mention about what Iíve been doing with respect to the Iraq desk and I would be honest and say, that I really enjoyed my work here for the past one year. And therefore, I would also welcome the incoming Jefferson Science Fellows to consider this as a possibility. And the excitement is there, the challenges are there and eventually, you will also be rewarded for your work, in terms of satisfaction of having done something useful for the countries involved. Namely, the United States and Iraq.

And as Shannon has already described, I am not going to go into these details again, basically we have been trying to establish a science and technology collaboration between Iraqi scientists and the U.S. scientists. This has not been easy, because sometimes you try to talk to them and ask, ďWhat are the research priorities for you?Ē and itís not very easy to get an answer. And itís not easy to get a correct answer at all. The reason being, Iraq being so much backward in terms of science and technology development, they feel they need everything, and I wonít blame them. But if they tell me, ďI need everything thatís possible,Ē itís not possible for us to do anything meaningful.

So I was trying to get reasonably clear answers of what they were looking for and sometimes we have got the answers, but sometimes itís not very easy, as I mention. This is one of the areas where we will try to say, ďThese are the possible steps you can take in order to improve your scientific base in the country.Ē And we also were trying to encourage a lot of these Iraqi scientists to write joint proposals for competitive funding. And then, as Shannon said, we have already been successful in two of the Iraqi scientists winning out of the three proposals submitted from Iraq, two were funded for P.E.E.R. programming. And we are also trying to establish a science and technology funding agency and initial discussions have already taken place in Baghdad with the Minister of Science and Technology and the Minister of Higher Education officials and hopefully something will happen reasonably soon. Iím at least positive that with all the technocrats in the ministry -- a lot of the ministers are either doctors or engineers or scientist, therefore, they are interested in doing something good for the country, theyíre interested in making sure that there is a good science basis for all of the developmental work and therefore, Iím confident that something will happen very soon.

Most of us in the Department of State here are familiar with the concept that transitioning now and therefore, what I would do is also transition from my work from NEA to my own research work, which is material science and engineering. And I just said, we are going to talk about utopium. We are all familiar with utopia. Utopia is an ideal place where everything is perfect and is it really achievable and practical? We donít even know, but similarly when we talk about materials and instead of calling it utopia, I would like to call it utopium because most of the metallic materials like aluminium, magnesium, titanium, chromium, molybdenum all of these things end with Ďumí and therefore, letís call it utopium.

This utopium means a metal or a material in general, which will have all the best possible properties you can think of. And what do people look for in any type of particular material? Obviously, you like to have very high strength, because the higher the strength, the amount of material you could use is limited and therefore, you will be able to sell material, especially for a relatively scarce materials, this is going to be very important. So high strength is very important. But unfortunately Mother Nature dictates that if you have a really high strength, that also becomes very brittle. It cannot have ductility, or in other words, you cannot fabricate materials containing complex shapes once the material is very strong. And therefore, already we have a problem in the sense, if you want to have high strength you may not be able to have good ductility. But what we would like to do is, also have the high ductility incorporated into the material along with high strength. And if this material is going to be used in the open environment, corrosion resistance becomes important. It cannot corrode, then our material is vanishing after maybe a few years. So this deterioration has to be avoided, so the material must be very corrosion-resistant. And if you are interested in using these materials for aerospace application, light weight is very important. You cannot use iron or molybdenum or led or tungsten or uranium, which are really heavy metals. Instead, you would like to use materials like aluminum, titanium, magnesium which are very light. So the low density or lightweight become very important. And obviously, if there is an application, which requires exposure of this material to high temperature, this material must withstand that high temperature capability.

All of this is very complex. And sometimes not easy to achieve in one particular material. Assuming that you have achieved all of these material properties in one particular type of material, but then it becomes probably very expensive because you need to fabricate, you need to process all these things. But if it is going to be a very expensive material, nobody would like to use it. And therefore, you want it to be also very cheap or less expensive or inexpensive. And therefore, there is a set of properties which are not necessarily go together always, they go in opposite directions. So how do we really optimize what exactly we need and how do we really get that particular type of material, is what we are trying to do.

In order to do this, itís not that the materials are very new. Materials have been in existence for a very, very long time. And in the prehistoric times also people were using materials, but unfortunately at that time, the type of materials that were used were, just go around, whatever material is available, pick it up and see if it can be used, like wood or maybe stone. Or all these types of materials which were naturally occurring but the ones which were used by most of the people. But if you want to have better properties, obviously instead of just go to the shop and then pick up a material off the shelf, itís not going to be very useful. And therefore, after sometime people said, ďWell, people have been using this type of material for this particular application.Ē So experience also played a very important role, but that also has a limitation. You cannot assume that everything will be used only based on experience, because there may be a new application, which requires a completely different set of properties. How do you go about it?

Thatís where the science-based development activity has taken place and during the last 50 to 60 years, I would say, a lot of developments have taken place based on science and therefore, if you are familiar with your science principles of development of materials, how the properties are determined by the type of microstructure, the type of atomic structure, and the type of crystal structure. All these will determine what the properties of the material are likely to be. And thatís how new and novel and advanced materials are being developed nowadays based on these science principles.

And this is one of the slides, which I normally use whenever I give an introductory lecture to my first year students in Material Science. Itís not that, as I said, materials are new, theyíre very old and based on the type of material, which is predominantly used, the era or the age also is referred to. So, for example, people refer to Stone Age, Cooper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, because those were the materials which were discovered, and they had all those applications in the industry. But nowadays we are all familiar with all these materials out there, but the most important material we use nowadays is based on silicon for the computer network. So thatís what we can now say is like the Silicon Age.

But people have been using these materials for a really long time. The so-called Damascus steel was originally actually from -- not Syria, but from India. It still was produced there in India and then exported to the Middle East so that they could fabricate all these knives and swords and all these things. The interesting aspect of this particular type of Damascus steel is that if you look at the microstructure, you can see all the different types of designs you can get and these are very sharp. The blades are very, very sharp, theyíre very strong and therefore they have certain properties which are not easy obtain in other types of steels. And so these were being produced more than 2,500 years ago, but now that particular art is lost. What is the reason why we are not able to reproduce this particular type of material now is because we didnít know what type of materials they were using.

So people started looking into the actual materials that were being used. They did some chemical analysis, tried to reproduce the material based on the existing raw materials and they found that if the ore -- iron ore contains a small amount of iridium, it combines with carbon and forms a compound called iridium carbide, which is very strong and very hard. And if these very fine particles of iridium carbide are distributed uniformly through the material, it will be able to produce patterns like this and that seems to be a characteristic feature of the Damascus steel. And so people in Iowa State University have reproduced this material now, starting with the raw materials which are available today and obtain all these different types of interesting and aesthetically pleasing microstructures on these types of materials.

Another thing I want to talk about is the Delhi iron pillar, which again is about 1,600 years old, and the weather in Delhi is not very different from what it is in Washington, DC: humid, hot, and sometimes cold. And because of this variation in weather conditions, almost every iron piece should rust, but this iron pillar does not rust, and itís shown that it has been there for about 1,600 years and still it has not rusted. Because it was open in a courtyard, people are going and touching the material and then also sometimes taking pieces out of the material and writing some graffiti and all those things. And tradition also has it, that if you go to that iron pillar and put your two hands behind the pillar and join, then it will bring you good luck. And so people were trying to do that very frequently. And so, if you look at that, at the bottom portion for about six to seven feet from the ground, the color is different because people were touching and doing all types of things. So they put a fence around it now, but already the damage is done. But now, people are wondering what exactly is the reason why this material is so corrosion-resistant? And they found that a very thin layer of iodine, phosphorus, and oxygen forms on the surface and this gives you the protection from corrosion. And if you know look at the bottom six to seven feet, because that very thin layer is being removed, itís getting corroded; whereas, if you look at the top portion of the material, which is another 20-21 feet, you will see it is not corroded. So obviously, people are now trying to understand. In spite of this scientific understanding, people have not been able to reproduce this material completely in the corrosion-resistant form. So like this, there are many examples in the world where materials have been produced but the scientific understanding was perhaps not there at the time. Now people are trying to understand the scientific basis and then see how we can improve upon the properties of these materials.

So coming to the advanced materials, we have materials available, as I said, off the shelf, but if we want to improve the properties, as I said, you need to increase the strength, but if you increase the strength, the ductility comes down. Or if you improve something else, something else will go in the opposite direction. So if you look at this particular figure now, you would see that the properties, which are basic, need to be improved. And if you look at on the left-hand side, you would see what we call, the non-constraining performance, where you would like to increase the strength, increase the stiffness of the material, that means basically how easily you can bend and bring it backward, and how high you can use it, as far as the temperature is concerned, and how light it is. These are the so-called non-constraining performance material properties. But because if youíre increasing the strength, the ductility comes down, and if the strength is increased, stiffness is increased, temperature capabilities increased, but the fogginess, that means the -- basically how tolerant it is to defects in the material, also comes down. And obviously the cost will go up, but you need the lower cost material also. So obviously, the available material in nature would not serve the purpose.

So what do you need to do is do something in magic. Or, as people say, ďCheat Mother Nature.Ē And how can you do that? You know when we want to do something, we get hyper. If you are really hyper, youíd be able to do a lot more things. And the same thing is true of metallic materials and in general, any type of material. Because like us, like human beings, materials also -- they cry, they also show fatigue, sometimes they are also creeps, sometimes they also breakdown, and sometimes they do nothing and all types of things happen to the materials. So they also have human emotions, like us. But what you do is, if you want to improve the properties of a material normally, you try to increase its stability -- or decrease itís stability or you can say, you excite the material to a higher energy state. To excite this material to a higher energy state, you can increase the temperature, you can increase the pressure, or put in mechanical energy or put different types of things. And if you do like that, then you will go to what is called the red line state; that means itís a dangerous state. And once you are reaching there, you quench it, that means itís suddenly bring down the temperature or pressure or anything like that and it will produce the so-called metastable materials. And then these metastable materials are the ones, which will have a really good set of properties.

And so during the last 50 to 60 years, a large variety of new materials are developed, the so-called metallic glasses, the hydrogen storage materials, quasi-crystalline materials, and all these things. These are all done by exciting the material to high-energy state. And one of the very important processes people have used is the so-called rapid solidification processing. You melt the material and then cool it at a million degrees per second. You may not really appreciate what exactly a million degrees per second mean, but if you go to your iron smith, he does also heat the material and the puts it in a bucket of water to quench it. And that is only about a hundred degrees per second, maximum. But here we are talking about a million degrees per second. That means in one second you have decreased the temperature by a million degrees, which is going to be enormous value.

And because of this sudden quenching, it will produce a variety of different materials. And one of them is called metallic glasses. A material which is like a glass as far as the atomic distribution is concerned. And these metallic glasses are the ones which are used in nowadays in power distribution transformers for small-scale industry. And this is a multi-billion dollar business, which started out of academic curiosity only about 50 years ago. And now, as I said, the so-called Aller signal, which has gone through a number of iterations, has been used in this material for power transformers. And like that, there are many other applications for these materials, but in all these cases, strength is one thing which is very, very important.

And way back in 1984, Dan Shechtman from Israel was spending a year sabbatical in NBS or NIST now, in Maryland. And he was trying to do some experiments using rapid solidification of aluminum-based materials. And he formed a material which exhibits an interesting diffraction pattern like this. If you look at the bottom left-hand side, you will see the spots distributed around a central spot and they are ten in number. And thatís why this is called a 10-4 or depending upon the material, you can call it a 5-4 symmetry.

Such a type of symmetry is forbidden in nature. You will never see anything like that. There are only four such possibilities: 2-4, 3-4, 4-4 and 6-4, but this 5-4 is forbidden. But he was flabbergasted, he did not know what to do. He talked to a few people and published a paper saying this is a new state of matter. And Linus Pauling, who was a two-time Nobel winner in Chemistry, he said, ďItís all nonsense, thereís nothing like a new material and this is all old material itself but is a periodic twinning thatís what your actually looking at and therefore donít even worry about talking about it as a new material.Ē But 2011, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for this particular discovery. The reason why he was able to succeed is because he pursued on this topic, without any discouragement even in respect to the Nobel Laureate's comments.

But what I want to show is, way back in 1978 -- this was 1984 when Shechtman was doing. Way back in 1978, we did similar experiments and a different material and we also were able to produce a material with a 5-4 symmetry diffraction pattern, as you can see in the right-hand bottom. But, we did high resolution microscopy and found this diffraction pattern is coming from an area like this, where you can see very fine twins. And these fine twins also can produce this 5-4 diffraction pattern. But the only mistake we did was, instead of looking at the specimen like this, if you had tilted it through 90 degrees, would have got something completely different. We could have actually published the paper saying itís a new state of matter. So as people say, we came tantalizingly close to the discovery of quasi-crystals, but because we did not pursue it to heavily and too convincingly, perhaps we missed the boat. But the important point to remember is, if you find something, stick on to it, donít easily give up.

Another interesting technique which people talk about is the so-called mechanical alloying. And again, people say this is not a very new technique, it is a old technique. Because you take two stones together, bang one against the other, you will see that it becomes smaller and smaller pieces. And what we do in the case of mechanical alloying is something very similar: you take powders of different sizes and then agitate that whole mass together, for a given time, and then it will produce very, very fine particles. And these particles could be even nanometric in size. And this is one of the techniques which is used and it has a lot of applications.

Most of the time, scientific discoveries start as academic curiosity, but then only people look for applications. But this technique was developed out of an industrial necessity, and then only the science of the technique slowly came out. And one of the important applications of these mechanical alloy parts is in the so-called MRE heater. MRE stands for Meals Ready to Eat. And this technique was used to produce food, which can be heated up, instantaneously, without any microwave. Because this pouch was given to all U.S. soldiers during the Desert Storm war. Why? The idea is it contains a small mixture of magnesium and iodine powders, very fine powders. And if you add a little bit of water to that, theyíll react, produce heat, and that heat is generated so that you can warm up your food, and then eat it. So you can have a warm meal in the war zone without the necessity of having a microwave or another kitchen utensil or anything like that.

So like this, there are many interesting things that could happen, but in all these cases, the strength seems to be one of the most important aspects. And if I want to use the strength, all these materials which are produced using the so-called nonequilibrium processing techniques have formed a lot of applications, especially in the sports industry. The golf clubs, tennis racquets, baseball bats, and all these things. And in fact, the golf clubs are so good, made of this so-called liquid metal, the metallic glass, that they are now banned from professional tournaments because the person using this will have an unfair advantage over others who cannot afford to pay for this $2,000 golf clubs.

So like this, interesting things could happen, but letís look at the most recent craze, nano, nano, nano. Everybody talks about nano. Now you have the nano iPod, even the nano cars. The Tata Motors in India helped produce the so-called $2,000 car. And it has a steering wheel. It has four seats. It has brakes. It has window wiper. Everything is there, but the only thing is itís small in size. They wanted it to be equal or about $2,000 but with the exchange rate going on now, it is less $2,000, maybe itís only for $1,800 now. And you can also produce so-called nano motors. And see that basically, you would have a large number of atoms and in fact this particular motor has 15,432 atoms; this is the gear which is produced to reduce the speeds.

So like this, lots of things are happening, but again this is not really completely new. In the fourth century this Lycurgus Cup is there and now it exists in the British Museum in London. And you can see that depending upon where you put the light, whether it is inside the cup or outside the cup, the color of the cup is going to be different. For example, in the left-hand side you can see the reflection. That means if you have a light outside the cup it will appear green and if you are putting the light inside, it will appear red. The reason is the cup contains very fine particles of gold, which are only about 70 nanometers in size. And Iím sure all of you know what a nanometer is, but for the benefit of those who may not know, if you take one hair strand, cut it vertically 10,000 times, one of that piece is a nanometer. So look at the 70 nanometers, you will not be able to even see it if somebody is showing it to you like that because itís so tiny. So like this, there are other things like all the cathedral windows. Again, very fine nanoparticles of gold and silver are distributed in these things and thatís how the special properties are obtained.

Now, another interesting application of these nanomaterials is that you can purchase clothing which is water repellant, hydrophobic clothing you can purchase. And one of the ties made of the nanomaterial is presented to George Bush, the junior, and it probably would have been more appropriate to give it to his father instead of him. The idea is, if you are drinking wine and having some beverage, if it spills onto your tie or your shirt, itís not going to wet it. So thatís the advantage of these nano-ties. And looking at that, the people in Cornell already have come up with clothing, fashion clothing.

Like this, so many things are happening, but what weíre interested in is not the interesting stuff which is aesthetical but what we would like to have is an engineering application. Sometimes people come up with the idea -- nano is very quote-unquote ďsexyĒ and therefore it sells, and therefore letís call anything nano. So this is one of the products marketed in Germany and itís titled ďMagic NANOĒ but then people got sick when they were exposed to this. And so the market analyzed it and found that there was nothing nano inside. And so they simply withdrew the product from the market.

So what I want to do in the next few minutes is talk about our own work with respect to the nanomaterials, and with respect to the development of materials. As I said, low density or lightweight becomes very important. In the area of aerospace industry, for example, aluminum and titanium and magnesium are the three materials, which are most commonly, used which are really light. But titanium is very good, it can go to very high temperatures, itís reasonably light but not light enough so that you could use it in the aerospace industry. So our efforts were, is it possible we could add magnesium, which is the lightest structural material, to titanium and reduce the density even further? And unfortunately, thermodynamic principles tell us, you cannot mix titanium and magnesium together. They simply get separated, and you cannot put them together. So what we said was, well, if Mother Nature could be fooled in other ways, letís try to see if we could do something like that here also.

So what we did was produce this titanium in a very, very small grain size, like on the right-hand side, which is very, very small, about 70 nanometers. And then we were able to produce a material containing up to about 10 percent of magnesium in titanium. Under normal conditions, not even one atom of magnesium will go into that. So thatís how we were able to better the density factor, as far as the aerospace application is concerned.

But when we talk of this trend, and the low density, theyíre not sufficient because you need high strength, but as I said, the ductility also needs to be very important. Because if it is brittle you cannot fabricate it into any component and if you cannot fabricate it, you cannot use it in any industry and therefore what we like to have is both high strength and high ductility. I donít mean this when I say high strength and high ductility. I donít mean that the plane should simply get completely distorted, I would myself, would not love to fly on a plane like this. But what we look or is the material, which can exhibit reasonably ductility even though itís very, very strong.

So people try to do this with some pure metals, like copper. Copper itself a very soft metal, as we all know. So they try to increase the strength of this material by reducing the grain size and by doing other things. And they were able to increase the strength from 50 units to about 1,000 units. So almost like an order of magnitude increases there. But unfortunately, a pure metal is not going to have a lot of applications.

We said, ďLetís see if we can do something with a composite.Ē Like titanium aluminide and titanium silicide , see if you can put together. Is it possible that we can get much better strength and ductility? We were able to increase the strength of this material again about an order of magnitude but the actual values are much higher than what we were able to get in the metal copper. And also, if you are able to deform this material, you can see you can go up to about 150 percent of elongation. That means if I have a piece of titanium aluminide, in this particular case, I can expand it to 50 percent more than its original size and then it is only 50 percent. I can increase it 100 percent or 150 percent, like that by changing the conditions under which I process this material, I should be able to increase the strength or the combination of strength and ductility could be achieved very easily. And this is what we call super-plasticity because plastic means you are able to deform it. But this is what we call super-plasticity, and in the case of super-plasticity, the microstructure, the very crystals in the material are distributed so we were able to prove that the microstructure remains very similar before and after testing. And therefore this is real, and not something abnormal.

As I said, stiffness is another property that we also look for and we were able to change the stiffness of these materials to produce in nano-composites, like aluminum and alumina, magnesium and silicon carbide, and titanium and titanium carbide, titanium nitrite. The increase in stiffness, strength, and also the improvement of ductility, were able to get in all these cases.

Now, in the next few minutes what I would like to say is, you can develop the material but if I wanted to develop the material, donít be under the impression that it is going to be used immediately. There is going to be a time lag between its application in the industry, or in the market, and actual development. And this depends upon the type of material also. For example, Iíve collected some slides -- some information here. The fluorescent lamp, the concept came in 1852, but its commercial edition took almost 80 plus years. But if you think of a material like transistor, it took only about ten years. So depending upon how immediately the material is likely to be applicable, it depends upon that type of concept. But the technology transfer from the laboratory to the industry is going to be a time-taking process.

Most of the conservative estimates tell us that it is going to be at least ten to 15 years, for any material to go from the lab to the industries. Scale. And if you are also thinking of the actual market penetration and if you look at the 25 percent penetration timing, it took for house electricity, 46 years; whereas, for a cellular phone, it was only 13 years. So obviously depending upon the type of applications and the product, the timings are going to be different. But this is something which all of us have to keep in mind, that it is a time-consuming process developing a material and seeing that it is used in the actual market.

But if you want to develop anything, donít be under the impression that you can just go away to the lab, lock the doors, and start work, and come out with a product. Itís not going to happen like that because you need the ideas. And the way these ideas develop is that you take time, sometimes, slowly it will happen but at one stage suddenly somebody may get a bright, shining idea and therefore suddenly there is a jump in the rate at which the acceleration of this progress is taking place. So it takes improvement over a period of time and then suddenly a bright idea comes in and new development will take place.

So like this, material development -- the whole cycle itself, is going to be very time-consuming, and therefore what we need to keep in mind is, you can develop material and hope that it will be used reasonably soon, and therefore youíll be able to get something very quickly, and therefore you will be able to have a personal satisfaction of having developed a particular material and see that it is used in the industry.

Dr. Challapalli Suryanarayana is a member of the US Iraq Economic Team on a year secondment from the University of Central Florida, where he is a professor of Material Science and Engineering. He is soon to be his Department Chair, upon return. At the University of Central Florida, Dr. Surya has been a pioneer in the development of advanced material science, including nanotechnology and aerospace materials.

He is the author of nine books, editor of 12 conference proceedings, and heís published over 350 research papers. Heís on several editorial boards for journals in his field. And he is the recipient of numerous awards in his field, including the National Metallurgistsí Day Award from the Government of India, the Young Scientists Medal of the Indian National Science Academy, the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the Banaras Hindu University, and the Pandya Silver Medal at the India Institute of Metals. In 2011, Dr. Suryanarayana was ranked the 40th best materials scientist in the world (21st in the United States) by Thomson Reuters, which ranked from a total of 500,000 materials scientists in the world.

He holds a Ph.D. and an M.S. in metallurgical engineering from Banaras Hindu University in India; a B.E. in metallurgy from the Indian Institute of Science in India, and a B.S. in math, physics and chemistry from Andhra University in India.


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