New way to make lighter, stronger steel — in a flash
A Detroit entrepreneur surprised university engineers in Ohio recently, when he invented a heat-treatment that makes steel 7 percent stronger than any steel on record — in less than 10 seconds.
In fact, the steel, now trademarked as Flash Bainite, has tested stronger and more shock-absorbing than the most common titanium alloys used by industry. Now the entrepreneur is working with researchers at Ohio State University to better understand the science behind the new treatment, called flash processing. What they’ve discovered may hold the key to making cars and military vehicles lighter, stronger, and more fuel-efficient.
In the current issue of the journal Materials Science and Technology, the inventor and his Ohio State partners describe how rapidly heating and cooling steel sheets changes the microstructure inside the alloy to make it stronger and less brittle.
The basic process of heat-treating steel has changed little in the modern age, and engineer Suresh Babu is one of few researchers worldwide who still study how to tune the properties of steel in detail. He’s an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State, and Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Integrative Materials Joining for Energy Applications, headquartered at the university.
“Steel is what we would call a ‘mature technology.’ We’d like to think we know most everything about it,” he said. “If someone invented a way to strengthen the strongest steels even a few percent, that would be a big deal. But 7 percent? That’s huge.”
Yet, when inventor Gary Cola initially approached him, Babu didn’t know what to think.
“The process that Gary described — it shouldn’t have worked,” he said. “I didn’t believe him. So he took my students and me to Detroit.”
Cola showed them his proprietary lab setup at SFP Works, LLC., where rollers carried steel sheets through flames as hot as 1100 degrees Celsius and then into a cooling liquid bath. Though the typical temperature and length of time for hardening varies by industry, most steels are heat-treated at around 900 degrees Celsius for a few hours. Others are heated at similar temperatures for days.