Although structural materials pervade all aspects of our life—buildings, cars, airplanes, power plants, medical implants, the list is practically endless—we take them for granted unless they fail to perform as intended. Because failure of structural materials can have catastrophic consequences, structural designs tend to be conservative. However, with increasing demands on performance and efficiency, existing materials need to be pushed closer to their intrinsic limits (theoretical strength, melting point, etc.). At the same time, however, new materials with higher limits need to be developed. Needless to say, these advances cannot come at the expense of safety and reliability; therefore, a robust, quantitative understanding of the relationships among microstructure, properties, and failure mechanisms is essential.
Structural materials research at Oak Ridge spans the entire range from the very fundamental to applied materials development. Since defects control many of the important properties of structural materials, theory and modeling work closely with experiments to improve understanding of defect generation, evolution and interaction. State-of-the-art mechanical and microstructural characterization tools that have the requisite spatial and temporal resolutions are utilized to quantify the fundamental unit events of deformation and fracture. A hallmark of our research is collaboration across multiple disciplines since structural materials require a combination of superior properties (e.g., strength and oxidation resistance) rather than a single exceptional property. Knowledge gained from these studies is applied to modify the microstructure and optimize the performance of existing materials, as well as guide the development of entirely new classes of materials. Advanced structural materials will impact the whole gamut of energy conversion and utilization technologies (stronger, lighter materials for transportation, high-temperature alloys and ceramic coatings for turbines, etc.).
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