Mapping magnesium: materials engineer discusses alloy breakthrough

Professor Jian-Feng Nie of Monash University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering led a recent discovery for magnesium alloys. He shares some context for the results with Brent Balinski. 

@AuManufacturing: Please tell us a little about your career path. How did you end up doing so much work with magnesium alloys?

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: I completed my PhD study at Monash in early 1993. Then, I took a postdoc position at the University of Queensland. At that time, I was searching for the topic that would become interesting and magnesium alloys came into my attention. Magnesium was a Cinderella metal at that time and there were only a few people worldwide working on it. In early 1994, I joined CSIRO to work on a CSIRO National Priority project on magnesium alloys for automotive applications. Over that period, I developed a strong passion for magnesium, I felt magnesium was like a new-born baby and it has a bright future. I returned to Monash in 1995, and I was extremely lucky that I was able to continue the magnesium research and stay in the forefront of this area, with the tremendous support from Monash University and the Australian Research Council. Australia has huge deposits of magnesite. Between 1997 and 2007, the federal and state governments and the private sector made substantial investments in magnesium metal and alloys. 

@AuManufacturing: What are some current pluses and limitations of these kinds of alloy? The release mentions durability and quality control. 

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: A series of magnesium alloys have been developed over the past 20 years. These alloys are 400% lighter than steel and 35% lighter than aluminium. They have a huge potential for energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly applications. However, these alloys are more expensive and less durable than aluminium alloys. While magnesium metal annual production worldwide has grown from about 250,000 tonnes in 1997 to about 1 million tonnes in 2017, its market is still much smaller than that of aluminium (60 million tonnes each year) and hence the processing cost is relatively high. Another reason is that people don’t know how to precisely control the durability of magnesium alloys, due to the lack of understanding of alloy microstructure and its evolution during service.

@AuManufacturing: In basic terms, what is your recent breakthrough about?

Picture: Monash University

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: Recently, we developed a few magnesium wrought alloys with remarkable formability and mechanical properties. In addition, we also developed a microscopy method to reveal the atomic scale distribution of alloying elements in these alloys. Such information will provide insightful guidance to the optimisation of alloy compositions and processing conditions.

@AuManufacturing: How does the new technique work?

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: The atomic-resolution X-ray mapping technique has been around for several years. However, direct observations and identifications of alloying elements in light alloys is challenging because these materials are prone to electron beam damage. The beam damage is most severe for magnesium alloys and is particularly an issue when solute segregation occurs in single atomic layers. Now, with this technique, people can easily locate the positions of segregated atoms of artificially added elements or impurity elements in magnesium and other metallic materials.

@AuManufacturing: Will you be seeking a patent on this finding?

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: The atomic-resolution X-ray mapping method will be available upon request from others. However, we will be seeking patents for the new alloys and the new technologies for the processing of these alloys.

@AuManufacturing: What are the implications for other light alloys such as those based on aluminium and titanium?

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: The atomic-resolution X-ray mapping method can be applied to other metallic materials such as aluminium, titanium and steels. In those materials, solute segregation also plays a critical role in dictating their performance. With the new method, it is now possible to reveal why some of the alloys are better than the others.

@AuManufacturing: Is this something that will be challenging to scale up and to industrialise? If so, what are some of the hurdles? 

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: We are working with a couple of local companies to apply this X-ray mapping technique to their alloys and products, so that we can help make their products better and cheaper. The manufacturing industry in Australia is quite small, and it takes time to grow activities.

@AuManufacturing: Do you have anything to say about possible timelines for commercialisation? 

Professor Jian-Feng Nie: It is quite difficult to predict the timelines for new magnesium alloys and products. Generally speaking, it takes 10-15 years for a new magnesium product to enter the market.

The paper, “Direct observation and impact of co-segregated atoms in magnesium having multiple alloying elements” can be read here. The research was led by Professor Jian-Feng Nie (Monash University) with support from Mr Xiaojun Zhao, Dr Houwen Chen and Professor Qing Liu (Chongqing University) and Dr Nick Wilson (CSIRO).

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