It is sometimes confusedly believed that all materials have been discovered, that all combinations have been tested, that humanity has reached the end of its knowledge in the field of materials. This is, of course, false.
There is still immense progress to be made and NASA, in a press release taken up by Interesting Engineering, announced a new giant step with a new alloy which it describes as 1,000 times more resistant than its best current competitors.
Named GRX-810, the thing designed to withstand the worst conditions of the worst missions is an alloy called “oxide dispersion-strengthened” (“Oxide dispersion-strengthened” or ODS, in English). Wikipedia describes this material as a matrix of metal (nickel, platinum, iron-aluminum…), into the interstices of which oxides are injected to reinforce the capacities of the initial material.
One of the great novelties lies in the method used: rather than good old successive tests for almost as many errors, the American agency found the formula of the GRX-810 thanks to the modeling of materials, therefore the preliminary computer simulation of their qualities and defects, combined with the additive techniques of 3D printing.
The time saved is immense: only thirty attempts would have sufficed to find the perfect formulation for this new, almost indestructible alloy. “What would have taken us years with a traditional process of trial and error now takes weeks to lead to a discovery”explains Dale Hopkins, manager of NASA’s Transformational Tools and Technologies project.
Unbreakable (or almost)
The qualities of the GRX-810 are indeed remarkable: it can withstand temperatures of almost 1,100 degrees Celsius, while being 1,000 times more durable in these extreme conditions. It is also more malleable and three and a half times more flexible, allowing for more twisting and tensioning before eventual fracturing.
“This discovery is revolutionary for the development of materials, is it written in the release of the American space agency. New types of lighter, stronger materials are playing a crucial role as NASA aims to transform the future of spaceflight. Previously, an increase in tensile strength resulted in a decrease in the material’s ability to twist and deform before breaking, which makes our new alloy remarkable.”
As these modern research methods improve over the years, new discoveries are likely to find their way into laboratories around the world, taking the science of spaceflight, manned and unmanned, by leaps and bounds. The next Parker probe, named after the machine that recently went to caress the internal corona of the Sun, may thus be able to dip its antennae even closer to the surface of our star.