Engineering News

Exotic materials enter the marketplace

Newton, MA-- Advanced materials have helped push the envelope of such technologies as spacecraft, jet engines, computers, and telecommunications. However, most of these materials generally fulfill their complete potential only when new design methods are applied to new products. As a result, many of these innovative materials wait "on the shelf" until new markets develop.

Instead of taking a "wait and see" attitude, engineers might try applying such materials to incrementally improve existing products. Such actions offer an attractive way to use an existing market to build demand for a product-without exploiting the material to its fullest extent.

Some enterprising entrepreneurs have taken the latter route to introduce a variety of exciting new materials to the marketplace. Among them: a metal foil that promises considerably improved performance for catalytic converters; a polymer that can be easily remolded or reshaped to conform to changing needs; and minute crystalline structures that can give more conventional materials significantly improved properties.

Shape Memory Polymer. Imagine a child's bicycle helmet that can be remolded at home so that you can adjust its size as the child grows. Or how about an eating utensil that can be reshaped by the physically handicapped to meet each user's special needs. Such products can be produced, thanks to a Shape Memory Polymer (SMP) developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Tokyo, Japan.

The patented "smart" polyurethane is easy to process, according to its maker. Under certain conditions, which can be customized, SMP can transform its shape and hardness, then return to its original state, if so desired. Shaping takes place when the material is heated, while quick cooling enables it to retain its shape. If reheated, the material "remembers" its original shape and returns to it.

The material comes in pellet, solution, or liquid form for easy compounding. Conventional equipment can be used to injection-mold, extrude, coat, or cast SMP. Semi-finished products are available, including foam and microbeads. The material also re

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