If we could travel into the future, we would soon encounter many objects made of a silvery, glass-like metal. In the future, this metal will be used to make scalpels, knives, and scissors that remain sharp for a very long time, as well as tiny gears for cars and robots that look like new for years because they are made of a material so hard, they practically never wear out. The gleaming, silvery metal will be used in airplanes and spaceships because it is lightweight and withstands both bitter cold and intense heat. The future will be built with a super-material that has a surprisingly dull name – amorphous metal. It’s the perfect material for things that need to last for a long time under extreme conditions. It is twice as strong as steel – and ten times as flexible. Amorphous metal is formed when red-hot molten metal is flash frozen. It takes a microscope to see what differentiates it from “normal” metal: While “normal” metal naturally has a highly ordered structure, the atoms in amorphous metals are randomly arranged. This is what makes this futuristic material, also called “metallic glass,” so resilient. Incidentally, 3D printers and specially designed injection molding techniques can also be used to manufacture amorphous metal components. The silvery future is already here.
Shaping the Future
As you read this, satellites with Heraeus materials aboard are flying through outer space, and helping, for example, to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. But much of what Heraeus produces is making our present and future here on Earth better, safer, brighter, and healthier. A journey to beating hearts and flexible touchscreens, and into the bowels of megacities.
Seriously tough: amorphous metals
Picture this moment: A patient who hasn’t been able to see for many years comes out of anesthesia. The operation went well, and when the patient’s eyes open, he can see again for the first time in ages: the trees outside the hospital window, his loved ones standing by his bed. This may sound like a pipe dream, but thanks to visual prostheses, or retinal implants, it will soon be a reality for many people. These implants help failing eyes convert images of the patient’s surroundings into electrical impulses, which are then sent to the optic nerve. In order for this prosthesis to be able to transmit as many electrical impulses as possible, it requires a special material into which many tiny conductive channels can be built. The futuristic material that will make this possible is a compound of ceramic and aluminum oxide called CerMet, which can hold 800 conductive channels in an area of just one square centimeter. These extraordinary high-tech medical components from Heraeus supply the optic nerve with enough impulses to “shine light into the darkness.”
Everything is illuminated: conductive polymers
Imagine that your smartphone screen was extremely thin and unbelievably flexible – it would never chip or crack again. You could fold it or roll it up, and it would never break, because it would be bendable instead of stiff and fragile. This is made possible by printed electronics and conductive polymers – a material straight out of science fiction that can be used for the ultrathin coating on cutting-edge smart screens like those on mobile phones and in car dashboards. Prototype tests have already shown how well it works.
Faster and farther: a power boost for electric cars
The dilemma is familiar to people who drive electric cars: Accelerating at a traffic light or on the freeway drains a good deal of energy from the battery and lowers the car’s range. This is aggravating, but thanks to Heraeus developed Porocarb carbon, it will soon no longer be a problem. Mixing the porous carbon powder into the batteries’ electrodes increases the ion conductivity of lithium-ion batteries. To put it simply, the battery lasts around 20% longer. Even with the frequent need for peak power, for example when accelerating at traffic lights or on the Autobahn, a Porocarb-enhanced battery provides a stable energy supply for long – and fast – drives into the future with electric cars.
Light can detect doping offenders – and protect babies
Every time young parents prepare a bottle for their baby in the evening, a very special light source – the deuterium lamp – has already done its job several weeks before. These specialty UV lamps from Heraeus are champions at detecting impurities – even trace ones – in food. It’s no wonder, then, that they are used to test baby food, which has to be especially clean and safe. By detecting dirt and germs, this technology will ensure that fewer and fewer cases of illness are caused by contaminated food in the future. The process is so effective that doping control officers are using the lamps more and more often, for example to test athletes’ blood samples. Nothing escapes the shining UV light.
Putting your heart into it: a guidewire with a memory
Imagine traveling into a human heart via a blood-filled artery. In the future, this will be the way to access a patient’s heart during major heart operations: from the groin to the chest, through an artery coursing with blood. Doctors use what is called a guidewire for these types of minimally invasive, patient-friendly operations, which will soon be more and more prevalent. They can be used to position a heart catheter in just the right spot to administer essential medications to the heart via an infusion. As you might expect, the quality of the guidewire is a crucial factor in the operation’s success. An alloy developed by Heraeus helps make these guidewires even better and more flexible, and this pliability keeps the guidewire from kinking. In the future, this will make the work that the doctors do easier, and in many cases save patients’ lives. The alloy, nitinol, is also colloquially known as “memory metal” because it seems to “remember” and return to its original shape after deformation.
Crystal clear: clean water for megacities
Picture the metropolis of the future: a megacity with extensive parks, a huge number of people, and vast water consumption. But how will the city of the future meet demands for clean water? The very likely solution is light. New York City, for example, is already irradiating its wastewater with particularly high-energy UV light. This removes both microorganisms and chemical residues from the water. New York’s water is cleaned with roughly 12,000 UV lamps in one of the world’s largest UV treatment plant – turning more than two billion gallons of wastewater into tap water every day. That’s enough water to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza three times. Heraeus delivered the equipment initially installed at the massive plant, which consists of 56 reactors, each of which is the size of a freight truck. Since then, the process has set a precedent and emerged as true cutting-edge technology. In the future, UV lamps from Heraeus will even purify the air in places where people stand or sit in close quarters, such as airports or doctor’s offices. Quiet, invisible, and environmentally friendly. Lights on!
The perfect closed circuit: tomorrow’s recycling
When we’re driving around in our cars, the catalytic converter steadily cleans the combustion engine’s emissions thanks to a special material inside of it –a rare, shiny, silvery metal called palladium. Only 180 to 200 tons of it are extracted per year, a quantity that would easily fit into someone’s garage. Palladium is also used in catalysts that are needed to manufacture PET bottles. In the old days, these catalysts would be thrown away after use. But not anymore, thanks to a recycling process developed by Heraeus. This resource-conserving, next-generation technology uses only about one hundredth of the energy that would be needed to extract palladium from mines in Russia or Australia, for example. It also produces only about one three-hundredth of the CO2 emissions. That is how palladium is returned to production. This sensible, healthy cycle is already protecting tomorrow’s environment. Economists call this a “cradle to cradle” system.