Nano-Manufacturing Creating Stronger Metals

A Seattle-based startup, Modumetal is commercializing a new process that will increase the strength of steel and other metals by as much as 10 times, while also making them more resistant to corrosion. The process makes use of nano-laminate layers that coat the metal to achieve these impressive results.

The process creates multiple discrete layers, only nanometers thick, so it will keep the metal lightweight while keeping the strength-to-weight ratio high, and creating a more corrosion resistant material. This process has been done before but not efficiently enough to scale it up for mass production. Modumetal has come up with their own process which is very cost-effective and shows great promise.

The inexpensive new process uses an advanced form of electroplating, commonly used for chrome plating. The metal is immersed in a chemical bath that contains a variety of metal ions, then electrical current is applied the ions to form a coating over the metal. Modumetal’s process makes use of multiple metal ions and carefully controls the electric current to have a better handle on how the ions are deposited into the bath. Changing the electrical current at specific points throughout the electroplating process creates a layered structure. Each one of these layers is just a few nanometers thick (1 nanometer (nm) = 0.000000039 inches) and every layer will have a different composition. The final product will have a coating that can be up to a centimeter thick.

The process is in the field testing phase and is being used on oil drilling equipment now. Oil fields are a perfect place to test this new metal coating because of the treacherous conditions the equipment must endure. Oil can be extremely corrosive and machinery must be durable enough to withstand the immense strain oil drilling puts on its equipment.

Beyond the oil field, the new process could be used on materials for bridges and aid in creating longer lasting infrastructure. Not only can this material be used for industrial applications, vehicles and aircraft stand to gain from these new developments. A stronger steel can lead the way to lighter cars and planes to cut down on fuel burn, thus increasing efficiency.

The nano-engineered layers stop cracks and strengthen materials while letting manufacturers use less of the metal material while maintaining its structural integrity. Modumetal is ramping up its production capacity at their factory in Snohomish County, Washington and if the new coating process stands up to field trials, manufacturers could see a huge benefit from this new nano-laminate.

As of now, the company’s claims of cost efficient, large-scale production has not yet been proven but the concept is exciting. However, before this process can be used commercially tests must be developed to ensure the performance of the materials that have been coated.

A stronger steel has manufacturers and metal fabricators watching these developments closely. The variety of applications this new process can be used for has the potential to create longer lasting steel and other metal structures. If the process proves to be as cost effective as Modumetal claims, the manufacturing industry will be able to benefit greatly from this new metal coating process.