A Western University researcher and his team say their analysis could lower costs and improve the longevity of metal components in cars and nuclear reactors.

Western materials researcher Hamid Abdolvand points to metal auto parts that are manufactured with extreme precision.

He says the focus is on keeping them light, strong and cost-effective. Abdolvand says his research will improve results in all those areas by going inside the metal and looking at it on a nanoscale.

“You have a small crack, a nanoscale crack that forms in material. This crack joins others, so you have many of them. Then you have a void and voids join and you have failure.”

Pre-pandemic, Abdolvand travelled to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. Working with international partners, he conducted X-ray diffraction experiments to identify exactly when metals failed under loads.

“It tells us, really, what happens inside the material, as opposed to just at the surface, so that we can really understand how that crack, and where that crack, initiates.”

Graduate student Karim Louca pored over 4,000 terabytes of images as part of the research effort. Abdolvand says the team focused on two types of metal that are vital to Ontario’s economy; starting with zirconium, used in Candu nuclear reactors.

“Anything we can do to expand the life of, for example, of a pressure tube in a Candu reactor is quite important. So it helps us expand the lifetime of Candu reactors which, at the end of the day, is going to reduce the cost of electricity for us.”

The other metal studied was magnesium, used extensively in automotive parts.

“Magnesium is used in cars because it’s quite light, it’s lighter than aluminum. And it helps us to reduce carbon emissions again.”

Abdolvand believes, working with industry partners, the research could have long-lasting economic and environmental benefits.