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New Nano-Engineered Aluminum Alloys Could Spur Cheaper Solar Power Installations


Researchers at North Carolina State University have used nano-engineering technology to develop new superstrong aluminum alloys with a plastic-like ability to stretch under stress. The new material could help lower the cost of solar power installations, and it also has the potential to replace far heavier metals such as steel in vehicles and many other motorized objects, leading to significant increases in fuel efficiency.

The new alloy could also have a significant impact on energy efficiency improvements in the global shipping industry. Not only could it enable the development of stronger, lighter trucks and cargo ships, it could also be the catalyst for developing lighter products to fill those trucks and ships. That in turn could help provide for some interesting – and more sustainable – new shipping options.

New Nano-Engineered Aluminum Alloys

The North Carolina Team, headed by Dr. Yuntian Zhu, has developed aluminum alloys based on miniscule crystals, less than 100 nanometers in size. Each one is thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair, but if you put them all together, these “grains” form a material stronger than steel. Part of their strength is due to the use of crystals with built-in defects rather than perfect structures. The use of imperfect structures to achieve greater efficiency may sound counter-intuitive, but it is similar to a development in carbon nanotube research related to quick-charge batteries.

Sustainable Global Shipping and New Aluminum Alloys

Global shipping accounts for just a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions, but that percentage is expected to increase in the near future. One mitigation measure may be the use of solar powered blimps, where cargo weight plays an even more critical role than in traditional means of hauling. That in turn could spark an increased focus on developing lighter, smaller products, which is where the new aluminum alloys would come in.

Solar Power, Green Jobs and Aluminum

Aluminum is proving to be the new best friend of solar power, and it’s also helping to create new green jobs in the U.S. There’s the increased throughput on existing aluminum facilities due to new solar energy projects, for example, and Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant Alcoa is developing new concentrating solar power technology that uses aluminum rather than glass mirrors. As the solar market grows, more solar installation components will be shipped around the country and the light weight of new aluminum alloys will help keep carbon emissions in the transportation sector closer to sustainable levels.

Image: Aluminum suns by audreyjm529 on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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