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Weird metals – Meet lasered lead, Gallium, Cuprates, Kagome and more

Metals can be weird. Very weird. This time around, to welcome you to 2020, we thought we’d take a look at some of the oddest, most extraordinary metals around. Here’s to an exceptional, profitable, enjoyable year for all of our loyal customers. Enjoy!

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Rhenium – One of the world’s most dense metals

Rhenium is one of the most dense metals we’ve discovered so far, the metal with the third highest melting point of all. As a by-product of molybdenum it’s usually extracted through copper mining. It’s used in high temperature turbine engines, filaments, electrical contacts and thermocouples. Unusually heavy, it is one of the earth’s crust’s rarest elements.

Lead plus lasers – awesome strength

Quickly compress lead using powerful lasers and what happens? It’s bizarre. The metal becomes 250 times stronger, quite a feat for a famously weak element. The results are actually tougher than hardened steel, and it’s all down to the way the atoms move against each other.

When atoms slide easily against one another the material – for example lead – tends to be soft and pliable. When they don’t, you get something very hard like iron. Andy Krygier from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California and his team fired lasers at lead, pushing it to incredibly high pressures – as high as those inside the core of our planet – very quickly without melting it.

The lead reached 250 times its usual strength, holding itself in that super-strong state for long enough to be measured before it exploded, a very short-lived phenomenon. Why bother? The experiment teaches us about the way materials behave at high pressure, which in turn could help develop incredibly strong shields for things like satellites and weapons, to protect them against damaging impacts. Watch this space.

Gallium – The very heart of weirdness

Gallium is very weird. It doesn’t occur naturally for a start. It’s a by-product of aluminium and zinc mining, used as a vital semiconductor for electronics like mobile phones and computer chips. You can hold gallium in your hand and eventually it’ll melt. It also shatters like glass, but oddest of all is the way it interacts with other metals. Add some sulphuric acid and dichromate solution to it, for example, and place a blob of it onto some aluminium and the blob comes alive, ‘beating’ like a mini-heart.

Cuprates – Nobody knows how they do it

Cuprates are high-temperature superconductors which carry current without losing energy at unusually warm temperatures. While we understand the physics bit, nobody knows exactly how electrons travel through the materials. In fact it’s the biggest mystery in the entire field. As one researcher, MagLab physicist Arkady Shekhter, said, “Here we have a situation where no existing language can help. We need to find a new language to think about these materials.”

Terbium – The reason your PC screen looks green

Terbium is a silvery-white rare earth metal that’s weirdly malleable as well as soft enough to cut with an ordinary knife. It reacts with water to create hydrogen and is not found in nature as a free element. It comes from minerals like gadolinite, monazite and xenotime. Terbium is mostly used to make green phosphorescent materials for things like fluorescent lamps, PC screens and TV monitors, and also forms part of the recipe for trichromatic lighting, a very efficient white light used indoors.

Black silver – A new silver-based nanomaterial discovered in 2018

Researchers from the Singapore University of Design and Technology made a new silver-based material in 2018, a cheap nanomaterial with multiple applications made from silver particles 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Its many uses include biomolecule detectors and – vitally – better solar energy conversion. The material’s nanostructure is the key, strongly interacting with both visible and infrared light.

Kagome metal – Strange behaviour

Kagome is a new electric-conducting crystal made from layers of iron and tin atoms, where the atomic layers are arranged in a repeating pattern very like a traditional Japanese Kagome basket. When a current passes through the metal it behaves strangely, creating something called perfect conduction. It’s all very quantum, where objects can have the characteristics of both particles and waves, and the new metal has many uses, including creating devices with no energy loss, for example dissipation-less power lines and even better quantum computers.

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