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What are shape memory alloys used for

Author: Date:7/17/2012 9:04:43 PM

The shape memory effect was discovered in a gold-cadmium alloy by Arne Olander in the 1930s, but practical shape memory alloys (also called SMAs, muscle wires, memory metals, and smart metals) only started to become popular in the early 1960s after the development of nitinol at the US Naval Ordnance Laboratory (nitinol actually stands for NickelTitanium Naval Ordnance Laboratory). Several decades later, shape memory alloys are a popular choice for all kinds of medical and health-related equipment, including everything from dental implants to surgical tools and underwired bras to eyeglass frames (sold under brand names such as Flexon). Unlike plastics, metals, and traditional alloys, shape memory alloys are both strong andflexible, easy to sterilize, and corrosion-resistant too. Being lightweight, tough, and capable of operating at high temperatures, they're also widely used in aerospace components in such things as theSpace Shuttle and the Mars Pathfinder space probe.

 

A shape memory polymer.

Shape memory polymers

Shape memory alloys sound brilliant, but they do have some drawbacks: they fatigue (break after repeated deformations) much more readily than ordinary stainless steel and they're notably more expensive to manufacture than traditional steel or aluminum alloys. In the 1990s, materials scientists started developing inexpensive plastics with properties similar to shape-memory alloys. Known as shape memory polymers (SMPs), they are likely to expand hugely the list of applications for shape memory materials in coming years!