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Rhenium Diboride Like Metal, Crystal

Rhenium diboride resembles both a metal and a crystal in structure. It's hard enough to scratch a diamond - and can be made cheaply and easily, according to a a study by UCLA researchers. The material is made from the metal rhenium and the element boron.


(Ingots of rhenium diboride are formed by heating
and mixing rhenium and boron
)

Sarah Tolbert, Richard Kaner and colleagues considered what makes a substance hard. Metals don't compress easily because their atoms carry lots of electrons that repel nearby atoms; however, metals do bend easily. Crystals, on the other hand, form a crystal lattice that is rigid, but may be brittle under pressure.

The new substance combines both properties. Hard-to-compress rhenium was combined with boron, which forms a rigid scaffold of strong bonds with rhenium.

They heated and mixed rhenium and boron powder in a furnace and ran a large electric current through the mixture. This quickly melted the materials, allowing ingots a few centimetres across to form.

The ingots appear shiny like a metal but are also extremely hard, as measured by how much they resist being indented by a diamond tip. The material is nearly as hard as cubic boron nitride and boron suboxide, two of the hardest materials known, and like them can scratch diamond.

Science fiction fans may recall that EE "Doc" Smith wrote about something similar in his 1965 novel Subspace Explorers. He describes a super-strong alloy called "leybyrdite", whose key ingredient is rhenium.

"What would you think of an alloy that had a yield point -- not ultimate tensile, mind you, but yield -- of well over a million pounds, and yet an elongation of better than five percent?"

Deston whistled. "I would have said it was a pure pipe dream. What else is in it?"

"Mostly tungsten. A lot of tantalum. Rhenium around ten percent.
(Read more about leybyrdite)

Thanks to Winchell Chung for the tip; read more via NewScientist.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/25/2007)

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