Today, modern metal alloys are what make our world possible. Alloys give our spacecraft the strength to break through our atmosphere, they give our Doctors the ability to see through the human body and make diagnoses, and they even give our Grandmas’ their replacement hips. Simply put, the human race owes much of its prosperity(however brief it may be) to the invention of metal alloys.
If you didn’t know already, an alloy is a combination of metals or the combination of a metal with another metallic element.
Many alloys are naturally occurring like electrum, a mixture of gold and silver, which was used in some of the first known minted coins during the reign of King Croesus of Lydia in 560-546 BC. The majority of alloys, however, are man-made.
The first-ever man-made alloy was brass, a simple combination of copper and zinc. Shortly after brass’ invention smiths of the era invented bronze, an alloy of copper and tin which became widely popular after 3000 BC, ushering in the era of man-made alloys and eventually the industrial and technological revolutions.
Today, we are going to discuss three of the most fascinating uses for modern metal alloys, from spacecraft to MRIs.
Wironium For Dental Implants
Let’s begin with one of the funkiest-sounding of the modern metal alloys, wironium. Wironium is a nickel-free, nitrogen treated metal alloy made of a cobalt-chrome mixture. The alloy was originally invented in 1972 and has been used in dental implants ever since because of its biocompatibility and corrosion resistance.
According to Dr. Hudnall DMD at Stomadent labs, Wironium will continue to be the alloy of choice for dentists for years to come:
“Small changes in the cobalt-chrome formulation of these (wironium) metal frameworks have resulted in an alloy that has a high resistance to deformation while the cast alloy itself is semi-flexible and resists fracture of the metal clasps. These unique properties allow Wironium metal frameworks to be incredibly thin yet strong and durable.”
If you have quality dental implants, then you probably have wironium in your mouth right now. The name may sound odd, but wironium is actually one of the most useful alloys of all.
Inconel® 718 For Nasa Spacecraft
Iconel® is a nickel-based family of superalloys that has become one of the most widely-used types of alloys on the planet. The first of the family was developed back in the 1940s by research teams at Wiggin Alloys in Hereford, England.
They originally manufactured Iconel to withstand the incredible temperature and pressure of the Whittle jet engine, one of the most advanced pieces of engineering of its era. Since then the superalloy has been used for almost every tough job on this planet, from mining to space flight.
In fact, the most modern forms of Iconel are used by nearly every company in the space industry, including SpaceX and Blue Origin. NASA also utilizes multiple versions of Iconel on its newest spacecraft, the Orion.
Recently, the newest version of the superalloy, Iconel® 718 which is used in Orion’s launch abort system, was put to the test by NASA engineers and passed with flying colors. Not surprising considering its brother has been to the moon.
We have a lot to thank Iconel for and it seems this superalloy family is here to stay.
Neodymium-Iron-Boron For Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
In 1984 Neodymium-Iron-Boron (NdFeB) was reportedly independently discovered by General Motors in the U.S and Sumitomo Special Metals in Japan almost simultaneously. Since then the metal alloy, which is actually a type of magnet, has been used in a number of applications including electric motors, electric generators, headphones, and even computer hard disks.
Perhaps the most important use for the Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy, however, is in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
MRIs work by producing a strong magnetic field that forces protons in your cells to align. When the magnet is then turned off, your protons realign, but at different rates and using different amounts of energy depending on tissue type. These differing magnetic properties allow Doctors to distinguish between tissues, fluids, bones, cancers, etc. within the body.
Not all MRIs utilize Neodymium-Iron-Boron magnets, however, it is becoming an increasingly common choice, especially in orthopedics because Neodymium-Iron-Boron allows for open systems so patients with injuries can be more easily scanned.
Neodymium-Iron-Boron (NdFeB) magnets are also permanent, which reduces costs and they have cut down the weight of permanent systems from an average of over 100 tons to less than 20 tons.
Metal alloys are some of the most fascinating materials on our planet today. They enable us to reach for the stars, maintain our mobility and even save us from life-threatening conditions. Unfortunately, these heroes of technological advancement are often forgotten.
As we move forward into the information age, it will be fascinating to see the amazing places and technologies superalloys can bring us. If you thought this list was cool, just you wait for my follow up article in 2040.