Does the idea seem plausible that a metal can be lighter than water? Well, try dropping your gold or iron ring in a glass full of water and watch it mockingly settle in the bottom after a few seconds. Will you then trust a ship that’s made entirely with this
‘light’ metal, which on closer inspection looks perforated very much like a block of cheese? While you might seriously think about jumping into another vessel, the US Army Research Laboratory apparently knew what they were doing.
Creator of the super strong, super light “floating metal”, Nikhil Gupta is a researcher at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, which he joined in 2004. Now, the army has not only invested USD $75,000 (approximately `48 lakh) in Nikhil’s research that he has worked on for five long years, but this is the first time anybody has succeeded in making a composite that is so light that it can float and be used as a building material.
“We have a cooperative working agreement with the Army Research Laboratory, which implies that we work with them closely on developing materials and technologies of their interest,” says Nikhil, who moved to the US in 1999 for his PhD. The “floating metal” is a magnesium-alloy syntactic foam, which means it’s a “composite material comprising metal matrix filled with hollow particles called microballoons” — these hollow particles are the fillers that make the metal light.
Gupta’s metal is 44 per cent stronger than similar foam using aluminum and can withstand 25,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. “I have been working with polymer-based syntactic foams for 15 years. But polymers cannot withstand high temperatures and cannot be used in making engines or exhaust components. Therefore, my interest shifted to metal matrix syntactic foams. Making components lightweight saves pollution emissions during their transport and usage, so environmental benefits are a major driving force for me for this research,” he says.
Explaining how the ‘floating metal’ will help the army in its operations, Nikhil says, “Reducing the weight of army vehicles means longer and better equipped missions. It also helps in reducing vehicle wear and tear and saves on maintenance cost. Through another ongoing project with the US Navy, we are planning to transition this technology for possible implementation in ships. We tested the material under very high speed loading conditions such as high speed car crashes and blasts.”
The discovery, which came to the fore earlier in May, has caught the manufacturers’ fancy. But despite the sudden fame, Gupta is level-headed and credits his family who stood by him. And even though Nikhil has been staying in New York for over 10 years, he does visit his family back home frequently.
“It is said in NY that you need to live here for 10 years to be a New Yorker, so in that sense I can claim to be a New Yorker! The only thing to miss here is close family.
“My father retired as professor of Physics at the University of Rajasthan. So there was an academic-oriented environment at home and the academic profession felt like a natural choice for me. My wife is also an engineer, she works for IBM on hardware development. Our daughter will turn three this year. The work is very hectic because apart from teaching and research, I am also involved with technology transfer to industry and start-up companies. But strong support from my wife makes it possible for me to spend time in research,” says Nikhil, who was a lecturer at Punjab Engineering College (PEC), Chandigarh, before he moved to the United States.