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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials April 2020 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Rob Edmonds

Composite Metal Foam

Why is this topic significant?

Composite metal foam shows promise for various applications, including the transport and storage of hazardous materials and armor.

Description

Composite metal foam (CMF) combines hollow beads of one metal with a solid matrix of another metal. Although researchers (notably, a team led by North Carolina State University professor Afsaneh Rabiei) have been working on CMFs for years, the material is now moving closer to commercialization.

In one development, a CMF developed by North Carolina State has passed a key test for materials involved in the packaging or transportation of hazardous materials. The simulated-pool-fire test simulates a hazardous material's catching fire by exposing one side of the packaging panel to temperatures of at least 816 degrees Celsius (°C) for at least 100 minutes. To pass the test, thermal sensors on the other side of the panel must stay below a threshold of 427°C. In three rounds of testing, the sensors on the CMF panel recorded temperatures between 351°C and 379°C. For comparison, a solid steel panel failed the test in about 12 minutes.

In a 2019 test, the same team of researchers demonstrated the potential of CMF in armor. The researchers' prototype armor consisted of a ceramic faceplate, a CMF core, and a thin aluminum back plate. In tests, the armor was able to absorb 73% to 76% of the kinetic energy of .50 caliber rounds and even protect against armor-piercing rounds (absorbing 69% to 79% of the kinetic energy).

In addition to its strength and thermal tolerance, CMF has a significant weight advantage over solid metals. For example, the solid steel panel in use in the simulated-pool-fire test was about three times heavier than the CMF panel. Other studies have shown that CMFs are also effective at blocking X-rays, gamma rays, and neutron radiation.

Implications

Metal foams are typically expensive to manufacture because of the complexity of the material and the energy intensity of the manufacturing process. At least for now, promising applications will likely be in sectors that can tolerate higher costs. For example, recent research shows that CMFs have potential in storing and transporting hazardous materials, including nuclear materials and explosives, and in space applications. Other possible applications include aircraft-wing reinforcement and armored vehicles. Even so, further testing and development must occur before commercial applications will arise.

Impacts/Disruptions

As is often the case in materials development, defense and aerospace industries have been critical in driving the development of CMF and will likely be the first beneficiaries when commercialization occurs. A trickle down to other applications—including cars, buses, and trains (for impact absorption)—could occur in the long term if cost issues can be sufficiently addressed.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Defense, aerospace, energy, automotive, transportation, materials

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Big Picture: NCMMs in Defense and Aerospace

Why is this topic significant?

Significant opportunities for novel ceramic and metallic materials exist in the defense and aerospace industries.

Market Overview

Aerospace and defense applications are often the initial targets of new materials technologies and act as proving grounds for these technologies. Performance is often the main issue in high-end aerospace applications, with cost being lower on the list of priorities. Many important materials have emerged from military laboratories, and the development of some advanced structural ceramics, ceramic-matrix composites, intermetallics, and metal-matrix composites currently depends on funding from military agencies globally. Military policies increasingly favor the use of advanced technology to reduce human exposure to risk and to reduce the number of troops necessary for a given operation.

The aerospace industry is already an important application area for many novel ceramic and metallic materials (NCMMs). Ceramic thermal-barrier coatings commonly find use in airframe and propulsion applications. Metal-matrix composites have seen development and use in aircraft-engine applications for both military and civil markets. In addition, ceramics find use as wear components, such as starter components, in some aircraft applications—particularly in retrofit parts. In addition to finding use in military aircraft, NCMMs have many further uses in the defense sector. Ceramics are important materials for use in some weapons systems. Use of ceramic armor systems—both for body armor and for vehicle armor—has increased significantly in the past few years. Ceramic armor is often a laminar composite, comprising a ceramic tile, a reinforced polymer-matrix-composite sheet, and a cover of a thin layer of fabric that acts as a spall shield. Players have also developed optically transparent armor systems.

Opportunities

The aerospace and defense industries provide important opportunities for players to develop and use advanced-materials technologies. The potential for materials players to collaborate with aerospace and defense players and organizations is significant. In defense applications, new structural—and also multifunctional—materials are important because they will enable the development of, for example, new vehicles that are more mobile and offer occupants more protection than existing vehicles offer. Many companies—especially small and medium enterprises—benefit from defense- and aerospace-related funding for the development of novel technologies, including NCMMs. Players can market technologies themselves, partner with a defense or aerospace player, or perhaps license the technology to interested companies for use in defense or aerospace applications. One threat is the strategic nature of materials that emerge from military-funded research: Legal constraints will likely tie such strategic materials to key applications and impede their ability to find other lucrative or high-volume applications in the near term.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Defense, aerospace, materials

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: