Scientists are baffled by the hardest materials on Earth – ‘unexpected twist’

The images generated by microscopy show the fracture course and accompanying deformation of the crystal structure in a nanometer-scale CrCoNi alloy during a stress test at 20 K (-424 °F). The fracture spreads from left to right. Credit: Robert Ritchie/Berkeley Lab

A new study reveals the profound properties of a simple metal

A mixture of two metallic elements usually used to give greater strength or higher corrosion resistance.

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Scientists have measured the highest toughness ever recorded, of any material, while investigating a metallic alloy made of chromium, cobalt, and nickel (CrCoNi). Not only is the metal extremely ductile – which, in materials science, means highly malleable – and impressively strong (meaning it resists permanent deformation), its strength and ductility improve as it gets colder. This runs counter to most other materials in existence.

“In the same units, the toughness of a piece of silicon is one, the aluminum airframe in passenger airplanes is about 35, and the toughness of some of the best steels is around 100. So, 500, it’s a staggering number.” — Robert Ritchie

The team, led by researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, published a study describing their record-breaking findings in the journal Science on December 1, 2022.

“When you design structural materials, you want them to be strong but also ductile and resistant to fracture,” said project co-lead Easo George, the Governor’s Chair for Advanced Alloy Theory and Development at ORNL and the University of Tennessee. “Typically, it’s a compromise between these properties. But this material is both, and instead of becoming brittle at low temperatures, it gets tougher.”

CrCoNi is a subset of a class of metals called high entropy alloys (HEAs). All the alloys in use today contain a high proportion of one element with lower amounts of additional elements added, but HEAs are made of an equal mix of each constituent element. These balanced atomic recipes appear to bestow some of these materials with an extraordinarily high combination of strength and ductility when stressed, which together make up what is termed “toughness.” HEAs have been a hot area of research since they were first developed about 20 years ago, but the technology required to push the materials to their limits in extreme tests was not available until recently.

Grain Structures and Crystal Lattice Orientations

“The toughness of this material near liquid helium temperatures (20 kelvin, -424 °

“We were able to visualize this unexpected transformation due to the development of fast electron detectors in our electron microscopes, which allow us to discern between different types of crystals and quantify the defects inside them at the resolution of a single nanometer – the width of just a few atoms – which as it turns out, is about the size of the defects in deformed NiCoCr structure.” — Andrew Minor

Using neutron diffraction, electron backscatter diffraction, and transmission electron microscopy, Ritchie, George, and their colleagues at Berkeley Lab, the

The CrMnFeCoNi alloy was also tested at 20 kelvin and performed impressively, but didn’t achieve the same toughness as the simpler CrCoNi alloy.

Forging new products

Now that the inner workings of the CrCoNi alloy are better understood, it and other HEAs are one step closer to adoption for special applications. Though these materials are expensive to create, George foresees uses in situations where environmental extremes could destroy standard metallic alloys, such as in the frigid temperatures of deep space. He and his team at Oak Ridge are also investigating how alloys made of more abundant and less expensive elements – there is a global shortage of cobalt and nickel due to their demand in the battery industry – could be coaxed into having similar properties.

Though the progress is exciting, Ritchie warns that real-world use could still be a ways off, for good reason. “When you are flying on an airplane, would you like to know that what saves you from falling 40,000 feet is an airframe alloy that was only developed a few months ago? Or would you want the materials to be mature and well understood? That’s why structural materials can take many years, even decades, to get into real use.”

Reference: “Exceptional fracture toughness of CrCoNi-based medium- and high-entropy alloys at 20 kelvin” by Dong Liu, Qin Yu, Saurabh Kabra, Ming Jiang, Paul Forna-Kreutzer, Ruopeng Zhang, Madelyn Payne, Flynn Walsh, Bernd Gludovatz, Mark Asta, Andrew M. Minor, Easo P. George and Robert O. Ritchie, 1 December 2022, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abp8070

This research was supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The low-temperature mechanical testing and neutron diffraction was performed at the ENGIN-X ISIS Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, led by first author Dong Liu. Microscopy was performed at the National Center for Electron Microscopy at the Molecular Foundry, a DOE Office of Science user facility at Berkeley Lab. The other authors on this project were Qin Yu, Saurabh Kabra, Ming Jiang, Joachim-Paul Forna-Kreutzer, Ruopeng Zhang, Madelyn Payne, Flynn Walsh, Bernd Gludovatz, and Mark Asta.

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