At first glance, the machine seems to be building a miniature cityscape. A ring of nozzles fires four jets of powdered metal into a downward-pointed laser beam, which fuses the colliding grains in a bright orange glow. The mixed grains then solidify on the growing tip of a small pillar of metal alloy. Once the pillar is 1–2 centimetres high, the platform that holds it shifts to the side, and the machine starts to build another one right next door. The result looks like a forest of toy skyscrapers.
In reality, these towers, generated at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, reflect a major shift in how researchers think about alloys. The standard recipe — used for technologies ranging from ancient swords and arrowheads to modern jet-engine turbines — is to take a useful metal and mix in a pinch of this or a touch of that to improve its properties. One classic example is the addition of carbon to iron to make steel.
But the machine at Ames is making experimental samples of ‘high-entropy’ alloys, which consist of four, five or more elements mixed together in roughly equal ratios. This deceptively simple recipe can yield alloys that are lighter and stronger than their conventional counterparts, while being much more resistant to corrosion, radiation or severe wear. Eventually, researchers hope, this approach could even produce alloys that have magnetic or electrical properties never seen before, leading to whole new generations of technology.
Continue reading at Nature. Originally published on May 18, 2016.