Titanium is the leading material for artificial knee and hip joints because it’s strong, wear-resistant and nontoxic, but an unexpected discovery by Rice University physicists shows that the gold standard for artificial joints can be improved with the addition of some actual gold.
“It is about 3-4 times harder than most steels,” said Emilia Morosan, the lead scientist on a new study in Science Advances that describes the properties of a 3-to-1 mixture of titanium and gold with a specific atomic structure that imparts hardness. “It’s four times harder than pure titanium, which is what’s currently being used in most dental implants and replacement joints.” –
“When we tried to grind up titanium-gold, we couldn’t,” she recalled. “I even bought a diamond (coated) mortar and pestle, and we still couldn’t grind it up.”
Morosan and Svanidze decided to do follow-up tests to determine exactly how hard the compound was, and while they were at it, they also decided to measure the hardness of the other compositions of titanium and gold that they had used as comparisons in the original study.
Crystal structure of beta titanium-3 gold
One of the extra compounds was a mixture of three parts titanium and one part gold that had been prepared at high temperature.
What the team didn’t know at the time was that making titanium-3-gold at relatively high temperature produces an almost pure crystalline form of the beta version of the alloy — the crystal structure that’s four times harder than titanium. At lower temperatures, the atoms tend to arrange in another cubic structure — the alpha form of titanium-3-gold. The alpha structure is about as hard as regular titanium. It appears that labs that had previously measured the hardness of titanium-3-gold had measured samples that largely consisted of the alpha arrangement of atoms.
The team measured the hardness of the beta form of the crystal in conjunction with colleagues at Texas A and M University’s Turbomachinery Laboratory and at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University, Morosan and Svanidze also performed other comparisons with titanium. For biomedical implants, for example, two key measures are biocompatibility and wear resistance. Because titanium and gold by themselves are among the most biocompatible metals and are often used in medical implants, the team believed titanium-3-gold would be comparable. In fact, tests by colleagues at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston determined that the new alloy was even more biocompatible than pure titanium. The story proved much the same for wear resistance: Titanium-3-gold also outperformed pure titanium.
Morosan said she has no plans to become a materials scientist or dramatically alter her lab’s focus, but she said her group is planning to conduct follow-up tests to further investigate the crystal structure of beta titanium-3-gold and to see if chemical dopants might improve its hardness even further.
Abstract – High hardness in the biocompatible intermetallic compound β-Ti3Au
The search for new hard materials is often challenging, but strongly motivated by the vast application potential such materials hold. Ti3Au exhibits high hardness values (about four times those of pure Ti and most steel alloys), reduced coefficient of friction and wear rates, and biocompatibility, all of which are optimal traits for orthopedic, dental, and prosthetic applications. In addition, the ability of this compound to adhere to ceramic parts can reduce both the weight and the cost of medical components. The fourfold increase in the hardness of Ti3Au compared to other Ti–Au alloys and compounds can be attributed to the elevated valence electron density, the reduced bond length, and the pseudogap formation. Understanding the origin of hardness in this intermetallic compound provides an avenue toward designing superior biocompatible, hard materials.
SOURCES – Rice University, Science Advances