26.06.2013 15:43 Age: 5 yrs

Nanocrystals reveal damaged material: Predicting material fatigue

A small crack in a metal wheel caused Germany’s worst-ever rail accident – the 1998 Eschede train disaster. The problem: it was practically impossible to detect damage of that nature to a metal by inspecting it externally. But now scientists have succeeded in making material fatigue visible. They designed new synthetic materials that emit light to report high mechanical stress.

Picture of zinc oxide tetrapods taken by scanning electron microscope - Copyright 2012, Wiley

Detection of material failure is a difficult task for engineers, because cracks inside a material block can hardly be identified from the outside. However, early detection can prevent fatal disasters such as the world's deadliest high-speed train accident in 1998 near Eschede, Germany, caused by failure of a metal wheel. It is even more difficult to detect material failure when composite materials are used.

A German research team has now developed a new concept to design so-called self-reporting composite materials. The concept utilizes zinc oxide tetrapod crystals as a filler material for composites which at the same time reveals material failure by a visual signal under UV light. The new concept may solve many engineering problems as numerous fields from vehicle construction to medical engineering are actively seeking new composite materials for high-strain applications. The scientists of Kiel University, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and the Technische Universität München (TUM) have published their results in the current issue of the journal Advanced Materials.

“The luminescent features of zinc oxide tetrapod crystals are well established. According to our work hypothesis, these characteristics showed pronounced variations under a mechanical load, and we realised that it could help to detect internal damages of composite materials”, says Dr. Yogendra Mishra of Kiel University’s Technical Faculty. In one experiment, the scientists added zinc oxide tetrapod shaped crystals to a silicone (polydimethylsiloxane) polymer and tested its general properties. They found that the resulting composite material is on the one hand stronger than silicon and on the other hand emits light in different colors when exposed to UV light. When the material is subjected to mechanical stress, the intensities of the emitted lights changes.

Nanocrystals set off warning signal

“The micro-nano sized crystals give a visual warning when the composite material is about to fail under stress”, explains PhD student Xin Jin. “The alteration of the luminescent characteristics of defined semiconductor microstructures under load – as we could show for zinc oxide tetrapods – might be also interesting of many other phosphor material systems”, adds Professor Cordt Zollfrank who leads the research area ‘biogeneous polymers’ at TUM. “We expect further interesting developments in this emerging field on “self-reporting materials”.

Composite polymer materials are used in diverse fields from dental implants to spacecrafts. They are made from two or more constituent materials with different properties such as silicone and zinc oxide crystals which together render better properties. On demands, they can be designed to be light-weight, mechanically robust and still inexpensive. Professor Rainer Adelung, leader of the study, says: “Zinc oxide crystals seem to be an excellent component to design numerous specific composite materials – also for constructions in which stability is critical to life.”


Original publication:
Xin Jin, Michael Götz, Sebastian Wille, Yogendra Kumar Mishra, Rainer Adelung, Cordt Zollfrank (2012): A novel concept for self-reporting materials: Stress sensitive photoluminescence in ZnO tetrapod filled elastomers, Advanced Materials, doi: adma.201203849

The study was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the Collaborative Research Centers 677 and 855.

Prof. Dr. Rainer Adelung
Kiel University, Germany
phone: +49 431 880-6116
e-Mail: ra@tf.uni-kiel.de

Prof. Dr. Cordt Zollfrank
Technical University Munich, Germany
phone: +49 9421 187-450
e-mail: cordt.zollfrank[at]tum.de