Technologies Of The Year -- LiquidMetal Alloys

Dec. 21, 2004
Innovative material is stronger than titanium but can be formed like a plastic.

We have all witnessed technological advances lead to revolutionary improvements in a variety of everyday products (consider the number of wireless devices encountered in homes, offices, hospitals, manufacturing plants, etc). So, too, can advances in materials launch a burst of simultaneous breakthroughs in other areas. According to the developers and marketers at Liquidmetal Technologies, the bulk amorphous alloys they manufacture represent one of those breakthroughs. Liquidmetal Technologies says its alloys are about 250% stronger than commonly used titanium alloys but are malleable at 750 degrees F and can be molded like plastic. (An alloy is a human-made material resulting from two or more metals being dissolved into each other in a molten state.) The company's alloys gain their strength by retaining at room temperature an amorphous (noncrystalline) structure typical of conventional alloys when molten. The resulting random atomic structure of Liquidmetal avoids weakness that a crystalline structure can exhibit. Prior to 1993, amorphous alloys could be created only in thin solid forms, which limited their use. In that year, researchers at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) developed commercially viable bulk amorphous alloys, which can be used up to one inch in thickness. This meant amorphous alloys could be used in the manufacturer of more things, not just as powders and coatings. Another advantage of the Liquidmetal alloys are their ability to be cast like a plastic, which reduces the need for finishing. Some surgical instruments, for instance, could be made from a single mold using Liquidmetal. "The whole aim of the movement toward net shape forming in recent years has been to either very much reduce, or ideally completely eliminate, subsequent costly finishing processes after the initial one," says Merton Flemings, former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Material Science and Engineering and a Liquidmetal board member. Tampa-based Liquidmetal Technologies has licensed the bulk amorphous alloy technology from the Caltech researchers and in 2002 offered 5,000,000 shares of stock in the company (LQMT) on the Nasdaq. The company sees a wide variety of uses for the alloy including electronic product casings, defense applications, industrial powders and coatings, medical devices, sporting goods and space-exploration projects. Liquidmetal is being used in golf clubs and cell phones, among other things, and is part of research and product development projects under way at NASA and the Department of Defense. Its three biggest customers are TCL Mobile Communication Co. Ltd., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Johnson & Johnson. The company has used outsourced manufacturing but does have a 13,000-square-foot plant in Pyongtaek, South Korea. Construction of an adjoining 153,000-square-foot building was completed in September. The plant will help supply Samsung with screen frame components for the company's new SCH-X199 cell phone models.

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