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Steel Steals a Page from Bamboo

Friday, August 8, 2014

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Unlikely as it seems, delicate bamboo has taught mighty steel a thing or two about strength and flexibility, researchers report.

By manipulating several kinds of metal to mirror the characteristics of bamboo, scientists at universities in the U.S. and China say they have produced a significantly stronger, more flexible material.

The researchers at North Carolina State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Mechanics in Beijing have enhanced the metals' mechanical characteristics by modifying their internal structure to emulate bamboo.

Yuntian Zhu

Using a gradient structure on metal similar to bamboo, scientists from North Carolina State and the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Mechanics have developed stronger, more flexible metals.

“If you looked at metal under a microscope, you’d see that it is composed of millions of closely packed grains,” said Yuntian Zhu, a professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State and co-author of two papers on the new work, in an announcement.

“The size and disposition of those grains affect the metal’s physical characteristics.”

How it Works

Bamboo cells vary in size and density, which help give it strength and flexibility. To give metal the same characteristics, researchers gradually increased the size of the grains on the metal.

Small grains on the metal’s surface makes it harder and less ductile, meaning it can be stretched very far without breaking, according to co-author Xiaolei Wu, a professor of materials science at the Institute of Mechanics.

©Noah Bell / Bamboo Garden

The gradual interface of large and small grains makes bamboo stronger and more flexible than other materials, something researchers have mimicked in metals.

"In short, the gradual interface of the large and small grains makes the overall material stronger and more ductile, which is a combination of characteristics that is unattainable in conventional materials,” Wu said.

It also makes materials more resistant to corrosion, wear and fatigue.

The Metals

Wu and Zhu tested the gradient structure concept in a variety of metals, including copper, iron, nickel and stainless steel.

The technique improved the properties in all of them, the team said.


Bridges, like this one in Portland, OR, could be made 20 percent stronger using the new gradient structure technique on steel.

The new approach was also tested on interstitial free (IF) steel, which is used in some industrial applications. IF steel is made with very low ductility, making it vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

That type of steel is generally made only strong enough to withstand 450 megapascals of stress, researchers said.

This means it can be stretched to less than 5 percent of its length without breaking, making it extremely unsafe.

Using the gradient structure approach, the IF steel was made strong enough to support 500 megapascals of stress and was able to stretch to 20 percent of its length before failing.


Tagged categories: Biomimicry; Bridges; Building materials; Building science; Cast iron; Copper; Metals; Research; Stainless steel; Steel

Comment from David Johnson, (8/11/2014, 5:27 PM)

Interesting article, but I would like to see more. As a degreed metallurgist and over 25 years of experience there are a few inaccuracies in this article. IF is an acronym for "interstitial free" steels. This family of steels are extremely ductile and possess lower strength values. Also, the concept of having a steel with a duplex (more than one) grain structure is different. In my experience, steels with duplex grain structures cause the phone to ring in the middle of the night and metallurgists taking flights to places they didn't want to go because of problems. If however, this is all new, and the claims are true, it will make for an interesting field indeed.

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