Developments to Watch
FROM A HAPPY ACCIDENT, A STAR MATERIAL IS BORN
Last year, Ohio State University announced that a screw-up by one of its undergraduates had created a superstrong, lightweight material. Now, the university is trying to convert serendipity into cash by working with auto manufacturers and electronics companies that would like to use the material, known as Co-Continuous Ceramic Composite, or C4.
C4 came to life in 1990, when undergraduate Michael Breslin accidentally let a ceramic container full of aluminum heat up far beyond aluminum's melting point of 660C. The ceramic became saturated with aluminum. It proved to be strong but not brittle, good at conducting heat, wear-resistant, and only about half the density of steel. Plus, its ingredients are cheap: Silica for the ceramic is only about 70 a pound, while aluminum runs $1 a pound.
An Ohio State team that includes Breslin, now a graduate student, is working with General Motors, Ford, General Electric, Cummins Engine, and others to design and test components made from C4. Breslin says the composite can be modified for particular jobs--for example, to provide extra wear resistance in a brake rotor. Ohio State materials scientist Glenn Daehn says C4 could start appearing in cars by 1997.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNST