CAMBRIDGE, Mass --The solution to a mathematical problem MIT engineers originally tackled as a "theoretical curiosity" could lead to dental implants that won't crack and tank armor that's more resistant to missiles. It could also radically change the way automotive companies inspect the gears in car transmissions, saving time on the factory floor.
"It was so much fun playing with the problem from a scientific point of view," said Subra Suresh, the Richard P. Simmons Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. "Unbeknownst to us, its solution had many applications."
The researchers' achievement was to develop a mathematical theory to describe a ubiquitous class of materials. They are now using that theory to create new materials with exceptional properties. The work has also led to a more efficient way of testing the quality of components made of these materials.
Professor Subra Suresh (right) shows a prototype of the microindentor he developed to test the properties of graded materials. Suresh and visiting scientist Antonios Giannakopoulos (left) solved a math problem that, among other things, offers a way to determine the properties of certain materials that will save time for automotive factory workers who check the quality of car gears. Photo by Donna Coveney
In graded materials--the focus of the MIT research--two or more different materials are mixed together such that the proportion of one is greater at the surface but is gradually replaced by another with depth.
"A samurai sword is a good example of a graded material," said Professor
Suresh, who holds appointments in the Departments of Mechanical Engineering and
Materials Science and Engineering. "It's made in such a way that the material at
the surface is very sharp. But that material is also brittle and can break, so
as you go inwards the material changes so that it's not as brittle." The gear
teeth in car transmissions, human teeth, a
Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology