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UCLA researchers develop exceptionally strong and lightweight new metal nanocomposite

A team led by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has created a super-strong yet light structural metal nanocomposite with extremely high specific strength and modulus, or stiffness-to-weight ratio. The new metal is composed of magnesium infused with a dense and even dispersal of ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles. It could be used to make lighter airplanes, spacecraft, and cars, helping to improve fuel efficiency, as well as in mobile electronics and biomedical devices.

To create the super-strong but lightweight metal, the team developed a new way to disperse and stabilize nanoparticles in molten metals. They also developed a scalable manufacturing method that could pave the way for more high-performance lightweight metals. A paper on their work is published today in Nature.

At left, a deformed sample of pure metal; at right, the strong new metal made of magnesium with silicon carbide nanoparticles. Each central micropillar is about 4 micrometers across. Source: UCLA. Click to enlarge.

It’s been proposed that nanoparticles could really enhance the strength of metals without damaging their plasticity, especially light metals like magnesium, but no groups have been able to disperse ceramic nanoparticles in molten metals until now. With an infusion of physics and materials processing, our method paves a new way to enhance the performance of many different kinds of metals by evenly infusing dense nanoparticles to enhance the performance of metals to meet energy and sustainability challenges in today’s society.

—Xiaochun Li, the principal investigator on the research and Raytheon Chair in Manufacturing Engineering at UCLA

Structural metals are load-bearing metals; they are used in buildings and vehicles. Magnesium, at just two-thirds the density of aluminum, is the lightest structural metal. Silicon carbide is an ultra-hard ceramic commonly used in industrial cutting blades. The researchers’ technique of infusing a large number of silicon carbide particles smaller than 100 nanometers into magnesium added significant strength, stiffness, plasticity and durability under high temperatures.

The researchers’ new silicon carbide-infused magnesium demonstrated record levels of specific strength—how much weight a material can withstand before breaking—and specific modulus—the material’s stiffness-to-weight ratio. It also showed superior stability at high temperatures.

Ceramic particles have long been considered as a potential way to make metals stronger. However, with microscale ceramic particles, the infusion process results in a loss of plasticity.

Nanoscale particles, by contrast, can enhance strength while maintaining or even improving metals’ plasticity. But nanoscale ceramic particles tend to clump together rather than dispersing evenly, due to the tendency of small particles to attract one other.

To counteract this issue, the researchers dispersed the particles into a molten magnesium zinc alloy. The newly discovered nanoparticle dispersion relies on the kinetic energy in the particles’ movement. This stabilizes the particles’ dispersion and prevents clumping.

To further enhance the new metal’s strength, the researchers used a technique called high-pressure torsion to compress it.

The results we obtained so far are just scratching the surface of the hidden treasure for a new class of metals with revolutionary properties and functionalities.

—Xiaochun Li

The new metal is about 14% silicon carbide nanoparticles and 86% magnesium. The researchers noted that magnesium is an abundant resource and that scaling up its use would not cause environmental damage.

The paper’s lead author is Lian-Yi Chen, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral scholar in Li’s Scifacturing Laboratory at UCLA. Chen is now an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

The paper’s other authors from UCLA include Jia-Quan Xu, a graduate student in materials science and engineering; Marta Pozuelo, an assistant development engineer; and Jenn-Ming Yang, professor of materials science and engineering.

The other authors on the paper are Hongseok Choi, of Clemson University; Xiaolong Ma, of North Carolina State University; Sanjit Bhowmick of Hysitron, Inc. of Minneapolis; and Suveen Mathaudhu of UC Riverside.

The research was funded in part by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


  • Lian-Yi Chen, Jia-Quan Xu, Hongseok Choi, Marta Pozuelo, Xiaolong Ma, Sanjit Bhowmick, Jenn-Ming Yang, Suveen Mathaudhu & Xiao-Chun Li (2015) “Processing and properties of magnesium containing a dense uniform dispersion of nanoparticles” Nature 528, 539–543 doi: 10.1038/nature16445



Seems to be a win-win potential future light weight multiple uses material? Various mixes could most probably bring various advantages for aerospace vehicles, airplanes and lighter rugged ground vehicles.


A good week for the space industry: Space-X lands a booster back onto it's tail and now this new material.

OK, so it will take a few years to get into production, but the potential seems vast (space, then aerospace, then ground transportation).

(Pity about the A320 Neo engine problems and the MRJ 12 month delay).


Looks like Nice technically speaking, but could such an alloy be recycled? If not then they should develop it, we need recyclable material, composites are not great in that regard


If you can't re-melt and re-form this nanocomposite, you can always separate it by electrowinning to metal and nanoparticle streams.


Very promising CHINO-INDIAN invention.
Just look at the names of scientists.
It's almost a rule for scientific articles published on this site, last almost 10 years.
Where are the US born scientists?


The US-born are channeled into fields like law and business by low salaries for scientists and university admissions departments which prefer the higher tuitions paid by foreign students.


The genius of the USA is to attract the brightest and best from all the world into their universities. Whether they stay is another matter. While the initial IP will go to UCLA, if the guys go back to China, who knows what will happen ?


Even one lost generation of American inventors and researchers is a terrible, terrible thing.


I think we are getting a bit melodramatic here. The US is by far the most inventive country in the world, due to its combination of brains and capital and expertise.

The Japanese (who were doing well for a while) are aghast at the ipod (!) and iphone as they used to be kings of electronics, but they are playing catch up now.

If some of the brains are imported, what does it matter, they bring ideas and hard work with them.


@mohonj: You are correct, but they are certain to go back to China with the current US immigration laws. Anyone can come and pay tuition for advanced degrees, but then when they want to stay and build the economy, we send them away. Genius, for sure.


If they stay, they can make plenty of money doing industrial espionage.


If they stay, they can make plenty of money just working for US companies.


But Americans aren't going to decamp back to China when they get an attractive enough offer.


It is an immigration issue, not an economic issue.


In the not too distant future, industrial espionage, patents, massive investments, complex mass production, higher education, etc may be carried out the other way around to satisfy the Asian market.

India has been training more top Engineers and Programmers than USA for a few years. China may soon do so too? With close to 3 billion people, and growing fast, those two nations may lead in many field within 30 to 40 years.


I'm not so sure that those Sino-Indian scientists are as smart as they're cracked up to be. Edison said '1% inspiration, 99% perspiration', and he did most of his research on the backs of hired staff. He was foremostly a business mind who cooked up the stunt of electrocuting an elephant to discredit AC electricity, and using goons to put competing motion picture processes out of business (which is how motion picture producers went off to faraway California, not New York to do their work).

I still believe the US has the organizational smarts to outdo its rivals in most scientific field. China in particular claims to be on our heels in nuclear reactors (talks MSR's for years), biofuel (farming still backward and disorganised), supercomputing, plant research ( one of them was jailed for spying on our GM corn research) industrial pigments (titanium chloride process stolen from US)...does this all really add up?

Meanwhile H5-B visas are booming. I know personally! Banks are being created specifically to cater to this clientele!


With future high speed next generation Internet + 3D printers, it will become difficult to stop instant copy cats.

Not too long ago, we maintained than Japan and South Korea could not produce high quality cars like our Big-3. The reverse is true today?

We are currently using excellent Asian built Computers, tablets, Printers, Wifi, TV Modems, Telephones, Cell Phones, batteries, chargers, cables, 4K DEL HDTVs, digital Cameras, DEL lights, leather Sofas, kitchen wares, carpets, shirts, prescription drugs, e-buses, e-trains, airplanes, nuclear reactors, etc etc.

Go West may soon be changed for Go Far East.

Have we ever changed our buying habits in the last 15 years or so?


Historically, nations change and so do the ones in the top places.

Remember what happened to Greece, Egypt, Rome, Spain, Portugal, England, France, Turkey and many other empires before and after those few.

Asian nations will probably be the future top leaders. United China, India, Japan, South-Korea may very well be on the front line with many others.

The consumer base is being progressively destroyed in USA/Canada/EU ++, with huge wealth in the hands of very few, leading to an end of the current society.


@harvey, I agree that the consumer base is being destroyed by the destruction of the skilled working and middle classes in the US. More taxation on the rich could help that, also more tax on gas, as long as it was redistributed to the less well off, for instance in a better health system.

However, the US has a unique mix of capital, brains and business expertise that is hard to match. Look at the iPhone and ipad. By 1982, Japan owned the consumer electronics market from top to bottom, but with the iPad and iPhone, Apple (and silicon valley) took it back, apart from the low volume aspect of manufacturing the goods. You can buy Chinese knockoff's off most things, but most people buy the real (be it Samsung or Apple) thing.
You can buy trainers made in Malaysia for $5, but no kid would be seen dead in them. The US and Europe own marketing.

Asian nations may become leaders, but I don't see many Chinese brands that I would want to buy, yet.

Look how quickly brands can fall, look at Nokia, king of the heap in 2006, dead, 2013. I was in Nokia in 2007 when the iPhone first came out and they said it validated the higher end phone market ...


The trick was and still is to design home and have it made in productive low labour cost Asia, mainly in China, Vietnam, Malaysia etc. Mexico and Brazil are closer acceptable alternatives. Japan and EU were a bit too slow to move.

South-Korea may have the best of both world. They can design and mass produce at the the same place. Hyundai, Samsung and LG products are top of the line.

Our fully equipped Chinese designed and built Lenovo A-730 AIO PC, 4K LED UHDTVs, phones, cell phones, printers, LED lghts etc are all excellent.

Made in India products will soon catch up and compete with Japan, So-Korea and China.

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