Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Under-Reported Materials

The field of advanced materials is very near and dear to my heart. I have a degree in Materials Science and Engineering, and work as a metallurgist in a materials testing lab. I like to say that while aerospace and structural engineers push the envelope, it is materials engineers who really make the envelope bigger.

With some truly stunning pictures, Michael Jennings of illustrates a magnificent case in point, the Millau Viaduct in the south of France. The scale of the project is incredible, yet it was made all the more possible by the oldest science to work on the atomic scale, the science of metals.

Picture in your mind the image of the blacksmith. By working the bellows and judging by the glow of the metal (a pretty decent gauge of the metal's temperature) he strikes the metal to shape and quenches the metal in oil or water, thereby freezing it in place. The practice of metallurgy in no different today than it was in years past. Control of the content lets us name new alloys, be they of steel, aluminum, or titanium. That is only the first part of the process, however. The means by which the metals are formed, heated and cooled can change everything about an alloy. Some forms provide high strength while others are ductile enough to resist fatigue very well.

Not to forget the basics, concrete is still a wonderful material. There is nothing that can stand the test of ages while bearing huge compressive loads. Man made stone is still stone.

With the palatte of materials to choose from, an engineering project can truly be a work of art. Selection of wires for their tensile strength, platform steel for strength vs. weight, and tower steel for stiffness come together like colors in a painting. Finally comes the one attribute they all need to share, environmental resistance. Shrugging off corrosion in the seasonal weather of the region will make it so this bridge can last the years for future generations to marvel.

Hats off to Eifel Construction, they have put together another great one.

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