The surprising finding could lead to self-healing materials that repair incipient damage before it has a chance to spread. The results were published in the journal Physical Review Letters in a paper by graduate student Guoqiang Xu and professor of materials science and engineering Michael Demkowicz.
“We had to go back and check,” Demkowicz says, when “instead of extending, [the crack] was closing up. First, we figured out that, indeed, nothing was wrong. The next question was: ‘Why is this happening?'”
The answer turned out to lie in how grain boundaries interact with cracks in the crystalline microstructure of a metal — in this case nickel, which is the basis for “superalloys” used in extreme environments, such as in deep-sea oil wells.
By creating a computer model of that microstructure and studying its response to various conditions, “We found that there is a mechanism that can, in principle, close cracks under any applied stress,” Demkowicz says.
A computer simulation of the molecular stucture of a metal alloy, showing the boundaries between microcystalline grains (white lines forming hexagons), shows a small crack (dark horizontal bar just right of bottom center) that mends itself as the metal is put under stress. This simulation was one of several the MIT researchers used to uncover this new self-healing phenomenon. Simulation courtesy of Guoqiang Xu and Michael Demkowicz
Most metals are made of tiny crystalline grains whose sizes and orientations can affect strength and other characteristics. But under certain conditions, Demkowicz and Xu found, stress “causes the microstructure to change: It can make grain boundaries migrate. This grain boundary migration is the key to healing the crack,” Demkowicz says.