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Best of Both Worlds

January 1, 2017

Metallic glass may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s an actual thing. How is it possible to take the best characteristics of metals and glasses and combine them into one super-strong yet easily malleable material?

Takeshi Egami knows the answer, because he’s been working on it for over 45 years. And there are still plenty of secrets yet to be unlocked.

You may not be familiar with metallic glasses because they’ve been around for only a few generations. But according to Egami, a UT-ORNL Distinguished Scientist and professor of materials science and engineering, it’s only a matter of time until they are everywhere.

“Glasses have existed since the beginning of history, but the science of glasses has always been shrouded by big mysteries,” Egami said. “Due to metallic glass, the newest addition to the glass family, we are now solving those mysteries and will soon be ready to use these materials in technologically advanced products.” 

Welcome to the New Age

The key to the metallic glass revolution lies in understanding the properties of both metals and glasses at the atomic level.

Metals offer advantages in strength and durability that are unmatched by other substances. Their conductive properties helped usher in the electronics age. Another positive is the abundance of metals, making them easily available and cost effective.

On the downside, metal atoms tend to line up in an orderly fashion—like a marching band—making the material susceptible to breaking or shearing under heavy loads. Additionally, even the finest metals have a much higher tendency to corrode compared to plastics or glasses.

While regular glasses used in windows clearly don’t have the same inherent strength as metals, the one crucial benefit they offer is that their atoms are arranged chaotically—like a throng of football fans flooding the field after a big victory. This lack of alignment makes straight-line failures nearly impossible.

Their main disadvantage, however, is fragility. Once they start to fail, they fail catastrophically, limiting their use in areas where strength is a concern.

Egami believes that coming up with a material that combines the strength and ductility of metals with the fracture resistance and anticorrosive properties of glass will truly prove to be an important milestone.

“Much like silicon has defined the information age, this new wave of substances will set the tone for coming innovations,” Egami said.