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Detroit DIYer cooks up stronger, lighter steel, shames scientists (engadget.com)
241 points by shawndumas on June 11, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments

In spite of our understanding of chemistry, metallurgy still has quite a few mysteries in store for us. Some of them go back thousands of years. For instance we still have not been able to come up with a convincing reproduction of Damascus steel, the prized material that middle eastern swords were built of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damascus_steel. Another supposedly related and "lost" steel is wootz steel. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wootz_steel Perhaps a good term to describe the study of these materials would be forensic metallurgy. My closest brush with metallurgy was in a high-school chemistry text-book, which to be honest bored me to death. But at a different level it instills respect for the ingenuity and persistence of humans. Those methods are by no means simple and the bronze-age and iron-age men figured it out.

Among other things that make recreating these materials hard, is that in cooking them you not only need to get the ingredients right, but also get the sequence correct, sometimes to the minutest detail. Impurities in parts per million or the lack of can have significant effects in determining the properties of the material. Same goes for the process of making it.

We understand properties of individual components well enough but the physics that dictates the properties of alloys is different, difficult, non-smooth and very non-linear. Statistical physics have played a huge role in trying to model these behavior.

Another historical-metallurgical curiosity is the surprisingly corrosion resistant iron pillar in Delhi. It has been out there, in the open, facing the corroding elements of tropical weather for 25 centuries, but with little or no corrosion damage.

Edit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_pillar_of_Delhi

Indeed. The other problem with metallurgy is that it's awfully complicated on all sorts of scales from the atomic to the micron scale.

Most materials and chemicals out there we now have a pretty darn good understanding of, thanks to being able to sit there and simulate the atomic structure of the material in the computer. But metals like steel are far too complicated since you're not just interested in hundreds or thousands of atoms at a time. To understand steel and predict its properties you need to understand all the impurities and the grain boundaries -- these things occur on scales which are far too large for simulation.

So metallurgy remains somewhat like baking a cake. We can bake all sorts of tasty cakes, but there are other cake recipes out there yet to be discovered which might taste even better and we have no idea how to get there from here. (And for this analogy to not completely break down let's just assume that "tastiness" is both objective and measurable even though it isn't...)

No need to assume that! Some people like key lime, some people like pecan -- just like some people like their steel galvanized, and some people like their chrome-nickel-steel.

The interesting thing about steel is that the tiny grains that make it up are immensely strong, far stronger than any other material we have.

But we have no known method of making steel out of just those grains, it's always mixed with other weaker parts.

That's why spider silk is so incredibly strong - it's manufactured (essentially) one atom at a time.

If we could manufacture steel in the same way it would be far stronger than spider silk.

Here's a list of some of the various grains in steel:

Pearlite, Cementite, Bainite, Austenite (there are many more).

The steel making process is all about encouraging a specific type (and especially, mixture) of these grains to form. But we can do so only at low efficiency and in a random fashion.

This is partly misleading. It's accurate that steel is made up of grains, analogous to grains of sand, but the things you mentioned are more correctly phases, several of which can exist within a grain.

e.g. Pearlite, which you mention, consists of two phases, cementite and ferrite. And these phases can form at the edges of grains, or within grains, depending on growth conditions.

But this isn't the important thing. The important thing is that it's meaningless to talk about how strong "single grains" can be, and how wonderful it would be if we could make large single crystals. And it's meaningless for two reasons: firstly, there are always trade-offs. If you make a large single crystal (i.e. a single grain) you'll sacrifice toughness, because cracks will be able to easily propagate straight through the crystal, without any grain boundaries to stop them. And secondly, you have entropy. Whenever you try and make a large version of something small, entropy dictates you will always have defects. This is why, for example, carbon nanotubes will never scale (which is not to say they won't be useful, they will be!) but if you try and make a centimetre long nanotube it'll be full of defects and will never, ever, be as good as a single microscopic nanotube which is almost perfect.

Anyway, the point is, there's no perfect material. No "good parts" and "bad parts," there's always a trade-off. Sometimes the "bad" parts can do very useful things. As an example, if you make a very strong steel, good luck trying to shape it into anything useful! Imagine if you have a lump of the "best" material in the world, if you can't find a chisel to carve it into something, then it's not going to do anyone any good...

And claims like those given in the parent article are always a little dubious. It's hard for people to imagine the scale of the steel industry, and I personally know of processes that are great in the lab for both steel and other metals which have wonderful efficiencies but just can't be scaled. A kg of steel should cost about the same to make as a bottle of water. If the equipment/size/energy-to-run-equipment investment is just a little too high per kg, it's not going to be useful for anyone at the kinds of scales it needs to be...

That said, despite the difficulties there has been huge progress made in the last few decades, and this might be one of them! Without more information I couldn't say (and it's not my area of expertise anyway), so I wish them luck.

How are defects related to entropy? I don't follow.

Loosely stated, imagine that atoms can be arranged in a very large number of configurations. Only one of those will be "perfect", i.e. a perfect crystal structure. The rest will be defected in some way or other. As the size of the system increases, the amount of defected configurations also increases and the greater the chance it will have a defect. This is due to entropy/thermodynamics, depending on your interpretation.

That's it in a nutshell, I'm sure someone else can clarify.

> entropy dictates you will always have defects

Not exactly. Entropy dictates you need to add extra energy to remove the defects. Or more accurately, metal without defects has lower entropy.

> The interesting thing about steel is that the tiny grains that make it up are immensely strong, far stronger than any other material we have.

That's not true, there are many materials stronger than steel:

1) Graphene

2) Titanium

3) Spider silk

4) Carbon nanotubes (buckypaper for instance)

5) IsoTruss carbon fiber

6) Metallic (palladium) glass

7) Transparent aluminum

You misread what I wrote. Not bulk steel, rather the tiny grains are stronger.

> 7) Transparent aluminum

Just joking?

He might not be, transparent aluminum is also called:

  Aluminium oxide
Lots of names for the same thing. It's an incredibly hard material, but it's not really strong, if you define strong as tough.

It forms immediately on the surface of all aluminium that is exposed to air, and prevents the aluminium from corroding any further.

I might have to disappoint you all...

An Australian company, BHP (my employer at the time), was working on this method of steel production in the early 1990's. They had big hopes and put a lot of R&D investment in it, but were unable to commercialize it as the sheets of metal produced did not have consistent ductility and were prone to cracking.

So - the idea is not new, and the challenges of going from a concept to commercialization are serious, and were beyond the capabilities of one of the world's largest steel producers. The Bainsteel website indicates that they are still in the R&D phase. Best of luck to them, hope it works, but it is vaporware until it is on sale.

Could you share more information? A description of the process perhaps? Is there any difference between what BHP was working on and his process? (I realize that you may not have information now that you aren't working there.)

There is something about the parent article that doesn't sit entirely well with me. It might just be my inner skeptic, though.

The process was conceptually identical, AFAICT. Actual implementation differed insofar as coolant was sprayed onto the hot strip rather than being contained in a bath as shown in the linked graphic.

BHP's steelmaking research in the early 90's was IMO pretty leading edge - google "BHP Project M" for example. Unfortunately, the accountants decided that there was little future in steelmaking in Australia, and spun off BHP's steelmaking arm as a separate company (OneSteel) in yr 2000. The R&D focus died off around the same time.

Back to Flash Bainite - I am not totally dissing it, since some particular combination of steel composition and time-temperature path through the alloy phase diagram might produce an especially good result. What I am saying is that analogous heat treatments have been extensively studied in the past - but not implemented commercially due to problems the researchers were unable to overcome.

The linked article was pretty small, so I went and tried to get a bit more information:

* http://www.bainitesteel.com/ - the company making the product

* http://www.gizmag.com/stronger-steel-in-a-flash/18882/ - a longer and better writeup

* http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/06/flash-bainite-is-strongest-... - another writeup

Looks cool! Though not sure about the flamebait title from the original article. :)

The gizmag article points out a great potential in marketing of this steel too. I had assumed as I read it, that the process would be more energy intensive, but it is actually less, which could mean a reduction in at least comparable cost to current steel solutions.

'Cola also says his process is also environmentally friendly as it consumes less energy per kilogram of steel processed compared to traditional methods and uses water instead of oils or molten salt.'

Can we remove the "shames scientists" bit from the headline? This guy is a scientist by definition if he has any experimental validation, and I didn't see a citation for anyone being shamed.

Second this. Don't understand why a sensationalist headline should translate as is to HN.

Because it feels like there’s a strong distaste for amateur scientists (those without degrees, not those who don’t know the scientific method) coming from both professional engineers and PhDs, anyone that has academic accreditation.

The sensationalist title appeals to the autodidact that learned how to earn 100k+ without college through programming.

As one of these non college educated $100k+ autodidacts I feel no particular attraction to the title, in fact it is faintly annoying. Yes, I do vaguely dislike people who value academic success over any other. However, as a (also self-directed) student of history I know how much real science has been done by the hobbyist and so the "tweaking the nose of the establishment" angle doesn't really work for me.

I'm an autodidact that managed to earn ~100k without formal education with programming, and then got some formal education in something else just for the fun of it. I don't like it when people use their adacemic experience (or lack of it) to bludgeon people that have backgrounds different from their own.

I think drawing those kinds of distinctions in headlines is unproductive and foolish.

Yes he used the scientific method, so by definition is a scientist. However, I'm sure the title is using the popular definition of scientist (a professional researcher) in contrast to an amateur hobbyist.

If he starts a company on this, he's a professional.

What matters is not being employed to do research when he discovered it. Not what happens later.

At least this write-up


based on a press release mentions a journal article (as does one of the write-ups linked in the reply by djcapelis).

A quick search on Google Scholar


didn't immediately turn up the new journal article, but shows that bainite has been the subject of prior literature on heat treatment of steel for a long time. What is unclear so far, based on any of the write-ups linked to from this thread, is what trade-offs in mechanical and thermal characteristics and price the variety of steel mentioned in the current press releases will have in comparison with the hundreds of existing specialized varieties of steel. What industry response there may be depends greatly on what steel characteristics particular users of steel are most interested in.

My dad had a PhD in metallurgical engineering from a Big 10 university. I heard more about steel growing up up, than... well. you know. Anyway, I got curious about steel in samurai swords one time, and I asked him about that.

He said there's lots of legends about this material or that could be remade at the research lab my dad worked at that were not feasible to be mass produced. Process too costly, or too toxic, or maybe too dangerous when you have to make several thousand tons of it.

If my Dad had been given two weeks to just go and play at his company's lab, he could have walked out the door with Excalibur.

I would imagine there would be a limited market for this, by necessity it would be a high-end / high-cost / high-value market, much like exclusive furniture for the rather well-off.

Any idea whether there are actual Excalibur smelters around?

I think it's fair to point out that /this/ is an acceptable process to patent. I'm sure that's obvious, but HN does spend a lot of time denouncing software patents (rightly so).

EDIT: Not really sure why I got down-voted; nevertheless, I do think it's important to point out cases where patents can be applied as originally intended.

Downvoted because there is no reason to start a patents discussion in a materials science article.

I agree with your sentiment generally, but the HN community is overwhelmingly against software and business process patents. Therefore, as a matter of balance, when an article appears where patent law might be applied as originally intended I believe that it's responsible to highlight examples of the good use of patents.

Frankly, I think that it's incredibly interesting some people don't think that this new method of producing steel is worthy of patent protection, and is a valuable discussion to have. The reasons for being against software patents usually revolve around software being reducible to math, but here that argument is not applicable.

Given that I want to know more about their reasoning, are you suggesting that in order to have this discussion I need to go to the trouble of writing a blog about this article as it relates to HN's community sentiment, submit it to HN's news feed, and cross my fingers that it makes it to the front page where the people who responded to this article might see it and contribute? That seems unnecessary and overly burdensome.

When is the time then? This is a very good specific example.

Maybe on an article which mentions patents?

Patent law does seem to be one of those "classic flamewar topics" which I doubt anybody has anything especially new to say about. And the fact that somebody invented a new metal doesn't change the terms of the debate or provide anyone with new information, people have been inventing new metals (and things analogous to new metals) for a long time.

Any article about patents.

That was easy.

It's not new material invented here, but process and that's perfectly patentable. Problem is that already published stuff is no longer patentable by anyone.

Personally I feel that even stuff like this should not be patentable and that all patents should be abolished but I know many here disagree.

How would you suggest society repay the guy who invented the material? I can't think of any way except a temporary monopoly on its use.

The problem is that as it stands now, someone like Intellectual Ventures will have a patent like "cooling metal with water", and either force him to sell for a few hundred bucks or just interfere with anyone else who actually tries to do this. It'll be 20 years before anyone figures out a way through all of the legal mess and starts production. Even then, it will cost more, not less thanks to this.

Well no, because nobody does or legally could possibly have a patent on cooling metal with water. So I'm not sure what your point is.

It strikes me that many of the folks who most stridently object to patent law don't actually know much about it.

It's an example. And hyperboly at that. But you'd be surprised (at least I am) at the patents that are granted that really shouldn't be, but once they are have nearly magical powers given to them by existing laws to resist being overturned. The point was that it's possible to have an extremely stupid patent that really shouldn't have been legal or possible get granted anyway and cause big problems to small guys like this. He's got a great idea but not much money or clout. The patent system will almost certainly do him more harm than good.

It strikes me that many of the folks who defend patent law as it stands now most stridently are largely oblivious to the innovation that is being stifled by it's operation.

It's worthwhile to point out that he's producing this steel through his own venture where the process "is run at his proprietary lab setup at SFP Works, LLC., in Detroit."

Perhaps you and he share the same view of the value of patent protection. Certainly, I'd be concerned about the appropriation of this technology by foreign countries with less respect for US intellectual property protections.


I don't know much about patent law. However, when I search for "cooling metal with water" on Google Patents, I get over 27000 hits. So, the concern is there that maybe someone does.


In the real world, patent trolls are an insignificant minority of patent holders. Patents are either left fallow (b/c the invention has no practical commercial use), or licensed out.

The easiest way to "figure out a way through all of the legal mess" is to simply license the patent. Indeed, there is no legal mess unless you're trying to get around the patent.

Patent licensing is not a zero-sum game. A patent holder will not demand unreasonable royalties. 0.1% of something is better than 1000% of $0.

There's no way to value the contribution or potential contribution of a technology to society, nor the damage done by granting a monopoly. Not by an eminent scientist or humanist, and certainly not by a clark in a patent office.

You used the word repay - there's no way to be confident that a temporary monopoly will come within an order of magnitude of repayment.

Further we need to consider the destructive side-effects of these flawed attempts at compensation. Patents create an environment that stifles innovation: consider the threat of being taken down for inadvertently doing something that has a monopoly has granted on discourages both innovation and communication. Imagine applying for a patent, publishing, and only through that process discovering that you were infringing an existing patent! You need to pay lawyers lots to protect against that. And many inventors couldn't even be bothered with applying for a patent even if it were easy - many are inventing technologies because they have a problem to solve, not because they're aiming to create something thaqt will milk repayment from society.

The net beneficiaries of the patent system are business processes that are dedicated to playing that system.

Given the choice between something very complicated, expensive and unreliable (patent system), and something simple, free and also unreliable (the default - absence of patents), I opt for the latter.

That's all good but in the absence of patents, you'd have to resort to trade secrets.

One of the biggest reasons for patents was the public disclosure. If they are trade secrets instead, the inventor does not get any legal defense once the secrets are reverse engineered.

So I think it's a tough problem and society should err on the side of benefits for the inventor.

Software patents should be limited to 1 year :)

You have to resort to trade secrets anyway. There's never going to be a legal system that is dynamic enough to move with the whims of a collaborative technology team.

   > So I think it's a tough problem and society should err on the
   > side of benefits for the inventor.
I tried to explain above - supporting patents doesn't err on behalf of the inventor. It errs against them. Patents granted to non-inventors and used to hit inventors over the head with.

There's a great book I recommend, "Against Intellectual Monopoly". It goes back to the original patent on the steam engine, and what a bad deal for innovation and innovators that was, and proceeds from there.

Awesome, I'll definitely pick up that book.

Trade secrets.

Yeah but once the secret is reverse engineered, he has no legal defense. With a public disclosure, someone might be able to say "ah, so if I make this little twiddle here, it jumps up to 14%!" and they both benefit.

Wow amateur metallurgist sounds like a hardcore hobby.

People have the weirdest hobbies. Have a look at this guy: http://www.themysteryworld.com/2011/02/tatara-project-guy-ma...

Making knives starting from the very scratch (that is, making their own steel to start with)

This looks like the original: http://www.arscives.com/bladesign/tamahagane/main.htm

Also has additional information on it.

And actually, if hacking with computers wasn't so common, it would be perceived as quite awesome, too.

I'm sure you'd like to think so, but unless you have a blast furnace in your garage you're not as cool as this guy, sorry.

How about a CNC mill, laser cutter or reprap? :-)

Yes, unfortunately.

Fascinating article, thanks.

A friend of mine is 'bio hacker'; he works with different microbiological organisms to learn about them and build better ones with specific traits. This article describes it better than I can: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101006/full/467650a.html

I am a biohacker too, actually. I just submitted a paper on how to build a Drosophila lab with little budget, for schools or biology lovers.

Cool, do you have a link I can share or something? Sounds fascinating.

As soon as the paper is accepted I will write more here on HN. Cannot do much before as for editorial requirements, sorry.

I'm an amateur bladesmith. This guy posts regularly on one of the forums I participate in. He's chronicled his research there in very accessible, but rich detail. Really brilliant stuff (from my layman perspective).


Same story appeared before on HN: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2642780

Rearden Metal, anyone?

First thing that came to mind. That's it, I'm starting a new railroad.

You should ask Mr Buffett about some pointers. He recently bought one.

First thing I did, searched this (comments) page for "Rearden".

Same, haha. I wonder how long until the state science institute seizes it.


The title links to the mobile page of engadget for some unapparent reason.

This what I love about human ingenuity: we constantly strive to improve upon something even if other people say it can't be done.

Now, who has the number for the Nobel Prize committee?

Easy: http://www.kva.se/en/contact/Committees/Nobel-Committee-for-.... :)

That brings up another question: How much will it cost and how can I buy some?

Why would you buy a lump of steel?

Metallurgists do this. I've held lumps of the steel used in power plants (which doesn't burn when the coal does), and even a pop can sized cylinder of Beryllium. :D

To turn it into something that isn't a lump of steel.

I dunno about lumps, but with a little welding knowledge I can imagine a lot of things I could try building if I could buy prefabricated shapes and sheets of the stuff.

So is it going to be called Rearden Metal?

that's just awesome.

I didn't know there was much steel in laptops.

Just in case anyone is leaping to wrong conclusions: This is neat, but it's not a miracle material. Tensile strength of 1900MPa is quite high for a steel, but it's half as strong as glass fiber. The big advantage here is that it's tougher, and cheaper to make, than fiberglass composite.

Er, what conclusion is there to jump to other than an accurate one? It's 7% stronger than traditional steel and 30% lighter, with a greatly decreased manufacturing cost. Ok, fine, it's not a "miracle" material since it's not curing the sick or raising the dead. But as long as testing continues to support the conclusion of both the manufacturer and researchers at tOSU (and elsewhere), this seems like an impressive engineering feat.

Whole careers are made on improving some existing process by a few percent. Kudos to that guy.

The title is ridiculous though, didn't they use science to make stronger steel or did they make them out of magic?

I'm sure the title meant professional, established scientists, not that he didn't use the scientific method.

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