Inspired by Nature but as Tough as Iron: What Is Metal Foam Used For?

Metal foams are incredibly strong and lightweight materials that copy nature.

Inspired by nature and combining the strength of metals, metal foams have many interesting applications in industry. They can be made from a variety of metals and tend to be incredibly light and strong. 

Here we explore what metal foams are, how they are made and take a quick look at where they are used. 

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What is metal foam made out of?

Metal foams have a cellular structure made up of a solid metal (such as aluminum) and many gas-filled pores. The pores can be sealed (closed-cell foam) or interconnected (open-cell foam). Metal foams are incredibly lightweight, yet very strong. Their cellular structure is similar to that often found in the natural world in things like bone, wood or even sea sponges.

Metal foams tend to be made from aluminum, but can be formed from a variety of other metals, including titanium, tantalum, copper, zinc or lead. 

These metallic cellular structures have a large volume fraction of gas-filled pores. 

"These pores can either be sealed (closed-cell foam), or they can be an interconnected network (open-cell foam). The closed-cell foam is referred to as metal foams, while the open-cell foam is referred to simply as porous metal," according to azom.com

Metal foams have some very important key features that make them particularly useful for material scientists, amongst others. 

The key properties of metal foams are as follows (credit to azom.com):

  • Ultralight material (75–95% of the volume consists of void spaces),
  • Very high porosity,
  • High compression strengths combined with good energy absorption characteristics,
  • Thermal conductivity is low and,
  • High strength.

What are metal foams used for?

Metal foams have a variety of applications. These range from construction materials to biomedical solutions. 

metal foam under SEM
Metal foam as seen under Scanning Electron Microscope. Source: SecretDisc/Wikimedia Commons

Some notable examples include (courtesy of azom.com):

  • The closed variety is used for structural applications requiring load-bearing features, and for weight-saving and impact-absorbing structures in vehicles.
  • The open variety is ideal for vibration and sound absorption, filtration and catalysis at high temperatures, for heat exchange and in medical devices.
  • The open variety is also useful in functional applications such as filtration and damping.
  • Foam metal is being used as an experimental prosthetic in animals.
  • Metal foams with high strengths can act as high-capacity impact-energy absorbers.
  • In the automotive industry, the foams are used to reduce the number of parts in the car frame, facilitate assembly, thereby reducing costs and improving performance.

How are metal foams made?

Metal foams are formed through a series of steps. First, metallic melts are foamed by creating gas bubbles in the molten metal. 

Because the gas bubbles are less dense and have higher buoyancy than the metal melt, they rise to the surface. To stop this, the molten metal's density is increased to trap the air bubbles in the melt. 

Fine ceramic powders are often employed to achieve this, or alloying elements are used to stabilize particles in the molten metal.

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The introduction of gas bubbles can be done through one of three methods. The most often used are (credit to azom.com):

  • Injecting gas into the liquid metal from an external source.
  • Causing the precipitation of gas that had just been dissolved in the liquid.
  • Causing an in-situ gas formation in the liquid by admixing gas-releasing blowing agents to the melt.

Metal powder or metal chips can also be mixed with titanium hydride, or other explosive agents, and heated above the melting point of the metal. In doing this, gaseous hydrogen is released which foams the mixture.

What is titanium foam used for?

Titanium metal foam is a very low density, permeable material that has many applications. Its defining characteristics are its very high porosity (between 75 and 95% by volume) that is mostly comprised of void spaces.

This incredibly strong metal foam is often used for:

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  • thermal insulation,
  • acoustic insulation,
  • adsorption of environmental pollutants,
  • filtration of molten metal alloys and,
  • as a substrate for catalysts requiring large internal surface area.

Titanium foam also has some other limited medical applications. Some researchers have attempted to use it as an ultra-strong implant to replace lost or damaged bone. 

"In the TiFoam Project, the research partners concentrated on demonstrating the viability of titanium foam for [the] replacement of defective vertebral bodies. The foam is equally suitable for repairing other severely stressed bones," notes fraunhofer.de

Is aluminum a porous metal?

Some forms of aluminum are indeed porous. They have some similarities to metal foam, i.e. they are both permeable to gases and certain liquids, but there are also some major differences.

The main difference is in the manufacturing process. Porous aluminum is formed by casting the metal together with crystal salt into the desired shape. 

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After the molding is complete, the salt is washed out. This process dissolves and removes the salt. Areas that contained salt grains are left as pores following the process.

This porous aluminum has some advantages over metal foams. For example, one of the main difficulties in the production of metal foams is finding the right combination of metal and explosive agent. Another difficulty is finding the correct temperatures and times to heating them to produce the required texture of the foam.

Because of this, it is difficult to predict how the porosity, pore size, and distribution of pores will turn out.

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metal foams aluminium
Aluminum foam. Source: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

"For these reasons, porous aluminum, with its simple manufacturing technology, is a valuable alternative. The broad range of precisely defined filter grades from 5µm to 250µm can differentiate the application accurately. The extra strong cast interface between porous and non-porous parts opens up a wide range of different applications," states porous-aluminium.com.

Some of the main differences between porous aluminum and metal foam are as follows, according to porous-aluminium.com:

  • A broad range of precisely defined filter grades from 5µm to 250µm,
  • Extra strong cast interface between porous and non-porous parts,
  • Extrem strength thanks to cast structure,
  • Simple post-processing (e.g. threading) and,
  • Cost-effective manufacturing technology.

Is stainless steel porous?

Stainless steel isn't inherently porous, but porous stainless steels can be created. For example, a team of researchers at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo were able to produce porous stainless steel for medical purposes.

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"Austenitic stainless steels are frequently used in biomedical applications, such as orthopedic implants, due to properties like high corrosion and fatigue resistance as well as high fracture toughness. In addition to biocompatibility, these properties are important in the selection and adaptation of material for biomedical applications," notes a materials research article on researchgate.net

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