Scientists stumble upon new material

  • 2008-07-09
  • By Marge Tubalkain-Trell

NEW STUFF: The material could have any number of uses.

TALLINN - The by-product of a failed experiment has turned out to be a tough new material with potential applications ranging from spacecraft parts to biomaterial implants.
Scientists from Tartu University and the Estonian Nanotechnology Development Center found that upon closer inspection, the unidentified dregs on the bottom of a piston after a routine test displayed remarkable properties. Martin Jarvekulg, a doctorial student at Tartu University, first noticed the material.
"I could tell it was a failed experiment. The result we wanted didn't come. Instead we found this [new] kind of structure," Jarvekulg told The Baltic Times.

The scientists had been trying to create fibers and membranes. The first material from which they derived the new substance was hafnium, a metallic element, and so far the scientists have found it to be the easiest to work with.
"In terms of chemical composition, [these materials have] been long-known. But the form it's in, those roll [-shaped] microstructures, hasn't been described in sources before. Because of that new shape, there can be new implementations for materials that exist now that haven't been possible before," said Jarvekulg.

After the initial discovery, it took several years to explain the phenomenon and achieve  reproducible results with other materials. The resulting structures are naturally self-organized into very thin rolls. With some processing, the material is extremely durable and is an excellent insulator of heat and electricity. It can be successfully used in a variety of ways, such as in sensors, biomaterials, and micrometrical devices, or as a composite material in spacecraft parts. So far, the scientists have created micro-roll structures with diameters from two to 50 micrometers and lengths of a couple of millimeters.

To date, the scientists have gotten micro-roll formations from oxides of titanium, zirconium and hafnium. These materials are very stable and have a remarkably high melting temperature 's for example, hafnium oxide's melting temperature is 2,500 C. In the range of visible light they display good transparency, and their chemical and thermal stability can be further increased by high-temperature processing.