ASU, Army Research Lab create new alloy with superhero-like strength

October 8, 2018

How does Captain America’s shield remain virtually indestructible when subjected to the Hulk’s strength or Thor’s hammer?

The answer lies in the shield’s composition: a synthetically engineered alloy of the fictional elements vibranium and proto-adamantium. The characteristics of this metal fusion enable the shield to absorb energy and endure an incredible amount of force. portrait of Kiran Solanki Associate Professor Kiran Solanki works with doctoral students in materials science and mechanical engineering on a new thermally stable, bulk nanostructured alloy of copper and tantalum. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Now researchers from Arizona State University and the Army Research Laboratory have teamed up to push the limit of what’s possible with materials science outside the Marvel Universe. They’ve designed an alloy of copper and tantalum that can withstand extreme impact and temperature — bringing society one step closer to having real-life materials with superhero strength.

Kiran Solanki, an associate professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is working on the copper and tantalum alloy, which has the potential to be used in protective equipment for the armed forces and on spacecraft for deep-space exploration. The same methodology can also be applied to other materials, such as nickel or iron, to develop more resilient transportation and sustainable infrastructures.

The ASU team consisting of Solanki, Professor Pedro Peralta, six doctoral students in materials science and mechanical engineering as well as Kristopher Darling, Cyril Williams and B. Chad Hornbuckle from the Army Research Laboratory, recently published a paper on the alloy in Nature Communications: “Anomalous mechanical behavior of nanocrystalline binary alloys under extreme conditions.”

Most structural metals experience sudden deformation when subjected to extreme impact and temperature, such as the force from an automobile accident or the impact that occurs during a ballistic event. When a typical metal deforms at a fast rate, it loses its ability to deform in a ductile way and becomes brittle, absorbing relatively little energy prior to fracture or failure.

This instability has motivated the multidisciplinary research team to improve the toughness of coarse-grained metals and alloys to prevent metal deformation and failure. They created a nanocrystalline alloy of copper and tantalum with engineering-enhanced properties to make it maintain a relatively consistent level of mechanical strength and microstructure stability.

“The technical challenge was to make a material with an average grain size of about 50 nanometers (billionths of a meter) and remain stable when formed into usable parts or shapes,” said Solanki, a co-author on the paper.

The unusual combination of properties in the copper-tantalum alloy results from a processing route that creates distinct nanoclusters of tantalum. As temperature increases, these nanoclusters don’t significantly change in size or spacing, which leads to the material’s notable stability and strength.

portrait of Kristopher Darling in lab

Kristopher Darling, Army Research Laboratory

“Within these very small grains, we built in a microstructure that’s even smaller than the grain size due to tantalum’s nanoclusters,” said Darling, a materials scientist with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Lightweight and Specialty Metals Branch. “This doubles the material’s strength and stability, making it immune to the deformation response.”

The alloy can withstand high rates of impact and temperatures in excess of 80 percent of their melting point, which can reach as high as 1,073 kelvins (about 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit), with very little change in its microstructure.

The high strength and good electrical conductivity of this material make it ideal for use in ballistic protection applications for armed forces, such as in armored vehicles, combat gear and other equipment for service members, where the material’s physical attributes could help save lives.

These mechanical properties have never been observed before in literature on coarse-grained or nanocrystalline materials.

“Our team is bringing materials closer to the theoretical limit and extending beyond what’s perceived as possible,” Solanki said.

“We went from one extreme to another extreme and showed the material is equally superior at both levels,” Solanki said. “We’re excited to see how far we can stretch this material.”

Solanki credits the Fulton Schools for enabling the team’s innovative development. He was able to recruit doctoral students from two disciplines to pave the path toward this discovery.

Additionally, the collaboration with the Army Research Laboratory has made the project a success as the team develops an alloy that is more resilient than most other structural materials.

According to Darling, the Army Research Lab has had a robust program in designing thermally stable bulk nanostructured metals for the past six years or more. However, the lab’s capability to produce bulk samples in large qualities has led to the ability to perform additional characterization that many other universities and labs have not been able to do.  

“It’s this advantage that has led us to uncover the many unique deviations in physical and mechanical response, which is opening these materials for unforeseen or predicted advanced applications in extreme environments,” Darling said. “We’re uncovering things that people didn’t think were possible.”

The copper-tantalum alloy was originally developed to replace copper-beryllium, a high-performance alloy known for its strength, conductivity, hardness and corrosion resistance. Copper-beryllium is critical for a range of applications, but the handling, manufacturing and machining of beryllium can cause a serious lung condition called chronic beryllium disease. Thus, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program have designated the alloy as a carcinogen.

The team continues to work toward replacing copper-beryllium with an equally superior metal alloy with similarities in its mechanical properties of strength, conductivity, hardness and corrosion resistance. The copper-tantalum alloy is a step in that direction.

Through the teams’ combined efforts, society may soon have access to materials with superhero strength without compromising the well-being and health of the people manufacturing them.

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist, EdPlus


image title

Hacks for Humanity grows, inspires others in academia

October 8, 2018

ASU's Project Humanities' humanitarian hacking event now linked to the University of Texas at Dallas and will be joined by two other universities in 2019

Discarded pizza boxes. Empty energy-drink cans. Dozens dancing. And hundreds of people cracking, hacking and tapping away on laptops during a 36-hour marathon binge.

Sounds like the internet being broken, but it was a good thing. A very good thing.

It was Hacks for Humanity 2018, which took place Saturday and Sunday at Stauffer Hall on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. Sponsored by ASU’s Project Humanities, the fifth annual “hackathon” is a 36-hour entrepreneurial marathon in which developers, artists, humanists, futurists, designers and visionaries participate in panels and workshops and are challenged to create technical solutions and initiatives to address local and global issues.

“This hackathon embodies the best that is diversity — bringing together folks from across disciplines, ages, professions and lived experiences,” said Neal A. Lester, professor of English and director of Project Humanities. “Our event — a burst of ‘creative disruption’ — shows that the truest innovation comes when we collaborate with those seemingly unlike us to arrive at together what we could not do alone. To witness this process and the amazing products that emerge from teams after an intense 36 hours is quite something to behold.”

Participants were required to implement three of the seven principles Project Humanities identifies as Humanity 101 into their technology products: kindness, compassion, integrity, respect, empathy, forgiveness and self-reflection. This year, the hackathon added three new tracks to guide participants’ creativity and innovation: parenting, mobility and social justice, according to the event's organizer.

This year's tied-for-first winners focused on mobility. My Siren is a siren-detecton phone app that alerts deaf and hard-of-hearing invididuals to nearby emergency vehicles and operates for both pedestrians and drivers, especially those in urban areas. The other winning entry, Noobs, is an app that improves mobility for the visually impaired by allowing more independence and safety. It does so by allowing individuals to be better integrated into their environments with greater confidence to perform daily tasks.

The hackathon provided participants with the opportunity to collaborate, network and discover the myriad resources they need to succeed as social entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Others involved with the event say it benefits the Valley on another level: presenting Phoenix as a hot technology market.

“These kinds of events show big companies why they should move to Phoenix,” said Christopher Huie, a developer for Galvanize, a learning community for technology workers located in downtown Phoenix. “A lot of it boils down to, ‘Is the tech talent here to support a move and bring their businesses here?’ These larger events show that.”

Huie served as a judge in last year’s hackathon. This year, he expanded his responsibilities by helping to recruit mentors and sponsors for the event and by getting the word out in the technology community. He said the reason he does it is simple.

“I like the idea that the premise of the event is to make the world a better place,” Huie said.

And that message is starting to spread to others in academia.

This year, ASU Project Humanities linked its hackathon with the University of Texas at Dallas, who hosted Project Humanities’ Hacks for Humanity in Dallas simultaneously.

“ASU Project Humanities is the genesis of Hacks for Humanity at UT Dallas,” said Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean of corporate relations for the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT Dallas. “We heard about the legacy being built by Project Humanities at ASU by State Farm. As we spread the word about Project Humanities and Humanity 101 on and off campus, we were thrilled with the excitement and desire to engage.”

Wetterskog said the UT Dallas hackathon team yielded about 215 participants and 50 mentors, coaches, judges and presenters. He said their main goal was to help people of all backgrounds and experiences and meet critical gaps in humanity and “perhaps even launch a new product that will help someone in the future.”

In addition to presentations, the Project Humanities’ Hacks for Humanity again included sponsored workshops. This year's sponsors included State Farm, Amazon, PayPal, Silicon Valley Bank, ASU Entrepreneurship + Innovation and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

The hackathon also featured fun icebreakers, team-building exercises, games and activities, line dance lessons, yoga class, therapy dogs, catered food, snacks galore, raffles and an awards ceremony.

For the past four years, the hackathon has brought together creatives from all walks of life. More than 250 people participated in this year’s event, which included more than 50 professionally diverse mentors and volunteers.

Greg Vannoni, a software engineering manager with PayPal, served as both a mentor and a sponsor this year. He said he’d been wanting to get involved with Project Humanities since 2014 but that the timing wasn’t right until this year. 

“The first year Project Humanities held its first hackathon was the same weekend we held our Opportunity Hacks. We made a general agreement since that time not to hold it on the same weekend,” Vannoni said. “This year I wanted us to join forces.”

Vannoni said PayPal promotes social innovation and is specifically looking to improve the costs and mobility of banking systems. He thinks Hacks for Humanity moves the needle on the work that PayPal has already committed to this area.

“We want to empower the underserved by using our technology, but not charge an arm and a leg for services,” Vannoni said.

Lester said the excitement and momentum of the event builds each year because participants' efforts have relevance and potential for immediate impact. The hackathon has inspired such technologies as:

• A coping app that helps children with ADHD communicate with their parents.

• An app that prevents parents from leaving children in their hot cars.

• A game-based app that provides adaptive learning technologies for students with disabilities.

• An app that sends daily reminders to perform random acts of kindness.

One of the most notable innovations to come out of Hacks for Humanity is ARKHumanity’s application that scans tweets for keywords that could indicate suicidal thoughts — for example, “I want to die,” “I’m going to kill myself,” or “I hate my life” and other similar phrases. A crisis counselor can then reach out to the person and offer help. This inaugural Hacks for Humanity team has gone on to win multiple entrepreneurship competitions and form its own for-profit, HumanityX.

Last year, 17-year-old Summer Gautier started a hacking club at Westwood High School. She was glad she attended this year's Hacks for Humanity.

“I got to work with people who were a lot older and very creative, which pushed me to be better,” said Gautier. “It was really fun because the energy level at this event is very high.”

Gautier’s energy level was running extra high on Saturday, the first day of the 2018 hackathon. She and her team were working on a proposed website that connects people with disabilities to resources, but she also had just achieved a big dream.

“I just discovered I was accepted to ASU,” said Gautier, who is interested in studying cybersecurity.

The third time is the charm for ASU senior Ben Ladick. The engineering major has been attending Hacks for Humanity since 2016 and enjoys many aspects of the 36-hour event.

“All of the hackathons are very different, but this one definitely stands out because it is focused on humanitarianism,” said Ladick, who was working with a team to solve a problem through social justice and the arts. “It’s a warmer atmosphere for sure.”

Lester said the momentum for Hacks for Humanity grows each year and continues to top itself. He predicts 2019 will be a banner year because the University of Southern Illinois and the University of Evansville also want to join the Project’s Humanity 101 creative and innovative circle.

“While exhausting, this year’s hackathon was bigger, better and even more fun,” Lester said. “Participants bonded and brought such talent and positivity to our community-building effort. We are grateful to all of our volunteers, participants, mentors, sponsors and supporters. Our event proves once again that there is no success without collaboration.”

Top photo: (From left) Makenna Flynn, Miras Ashktorab, Daniel Mock, Farhad Ghayour and Vishnu Kancharla discuss an approach to their business project during the 2018 Hacks for Humanity event at Stauffer Hall on the Tempe campus Saturday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now