Materials that can remember their shape and switch from one form to another may sound like science fiction, they are actually real and already in use all around us. But the alloy used to produce shape memory materials, based on nickel and titanium is expensive. Some researchers have started looking for cheaper options.
Five years ago, Professor Mirko Gojic, a researcher at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, wondered what his small team of researchers could do to lower the price of ‘smart metals’: a type of high-tech materials that can remember their original cold-forged shape, returning the pre-deformed shape by heating – a property that makes them crucial in a series of industries. The idea was there, but problems quickly aroused from lack of money and key equipment. Thanks to the support of EUREKA, the product is now almost finalised and could be rolled out within the next two years. Gojic thinks that this international research project he led could soon turn into commercial production of a cheaper alloy for use in aerospace engineering or electronics.
One of the key problems with manufacturing such materials is their high price. Gojic and his team embarked on producing a new, cheaper alloy, based on copper, whereas the most-used alloy is built on a half-half mix of titanium and nickel, known under its trade name Nitinol. ‘It is also the most expensive alloy, so there is a lot of effort going into finding an economically viable alternative’, says Gojic. The research project called RSSMA, for Rapidly Solidified Shape Memory Alloys, lasted three years.
The next step will be to pursue research, aiming to have a finalised product within the next one and a half years, followed by the construction of a pilot plant and then finally the take-off of the commercial production. If the next stage of the research goes well it should lead rapidly to the creation of a spin-off pilot firm to manufacture the new alloy. ‘This would require more funding and I am considering applying for a further grant that would help us get to the pilot stage, which could then eventually lead to industrial scale manufacturing of the new, cheaper alloy.’
The new alloy has great commercial potential, it would mainly be used in electronics and mechanical industries, since it does not hold the biocompatibility properties of nickel and titanium. It might also find use in the booming market of smartphones and high-tech gadgets. “It would not have been possible for us to improve our knowledge and competencies without EUREKA,” Gojic admits.
The grant also allowed the team to put money towards buying new equipment, such as a scanning electronic microscope and equipment for thermal analysis which was important in studying the properties of the alloys developed during the research project. Financing for the new equipment several sources, but the team had to make their own initial investment in order to be granted access to it, and EUREKA allowed them to do so. The team now continues to use this new equipment to develop the project further but also for new research activities in the field of smart materials.