The toughest material on Earth has just been found and the structure is just grains

The metallic alloy, made of chromium, cobalt, and nickel, is called CrCoNi.
Deena Theresa
Microscopy-generated images showing the path of a fracture and accompanying crystal structure deformation in the CrCoNi alloy at nanometer scale during stress testing at 20 kelvin (-424 F).
Microscopy-generated images showing the path of a fracture and accompanying crystal structure deformation in the CrCoNi alloy at nanometer scale during stress testing at 20 kelvin (-424 F).

Robert Ritchie/Berkeley Lab 

Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory just measured the highest toughness ever recorded, of any material, while investigating a metallic alloy made of chromium, cobalt, and nickel, called CrCoNi. The material was found to be highly malleable with impressive resistance to permanent deformation.

"When you design structural materials, you want them to be strong but also ductile and resistant to fracture," project co-lead Easo George, the Governor’s Chair for Advanced Alloy Theory and Development at ORNL and the University of Tennessee, said in a statement. "Typically, it’s a compromise between these properties. But this material is both, and instead of becoming brittle at low temperatures, it gets tougher."

The record-breaking findings were published in Science on December 2.

What is CrCoNi?

The alloy is a subset of a class of metals called high entropy alloys (HEAs). While alloys today contain a high proportion of one element with lower amounts of additional elements added, HEAs are made of an equal mix of each constituent element. 

This recipe gives the material a high combination of strength and ductility when stressed.

"The toughness of this material near liquid helium temperatures (20 kelvin, -424 Fahrenheit) is as high as 500 megapascals square root meters. In the same units, the toughness of a piece of silicon is one, the aluminum airframe in passenger airplanes is about 35, and the toughness of some of the best steels is around 100. So, 500, it’s a staggering number," said research co-leader Robert Ritchie, a senior faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and the Chua Professor of Engineering at UC Berkeley.

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Multiple techniques were required to define 'toughness'

The scientists used neutron diffraction, electron backscatter diffraction, and transmission electron microscopy to examine the lattice structures of CrCoNi samples that had been fractured at room temperature and 20 K.

As per the release, "the images and atomic maps generated from these techniques revealed that the alloy’s toughness is due to a trio of dislocation obstacles that come into effect in a particular order when force is applied to the material".

 "It’s amusing because metallurgists say that the structure of a material defines its properties, but the structure of the NiCoCr is the simplest you can imagine – it’s just grains," said Ritchie. 

"However, when you deform it, the structure becomes very complicated, and this shift helps explain its exceptional resistance to fracture," added co-author Andrew Minor, director of the National Center of Electron Microscopy facility of the Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UC Berkeley. 

Real-life applications are further away

CrCoNi and other HEAs are closer to being implemented for special applications. However, as these materials are not the easiest to create, George states that they could someday be used in environmental extremes that could destroy standard metallic alloys, such as in the frigid temperatures of deep space.

However, real-world applications need time. 

"When you are flying on an airplane, would you like to know that what saves you from falling 40,000 feet is an airframe alloy that was only developed a few months ago? Or would you want the materials to be mature and well-understood? That’s why structural materials can take many years, even decades, to get into real use," said Ritchie.

Study Abstract:

Finding structural materials that have good fracture properties at very low temperatures is challenging but is important for fields such as space exploration. Liu et al. discovered a high-entropy chromium-cobalt-nickel alloy that has an incredibly high fracture toughness at 20 kelvin (see the Perspective by Zhang and Zhang). This behavior is caused by an unexpected phase transformation that, when combined with other microstructures, prevents crack formation and propagation. The fracture toughness of this alloy makes it potentially useful for a range of cryogenic applications.