Mankind has been making tools and gadgets from metals for millennia. The discovery of copper and tin ushered in the Bronze Age about 5,000 years ago, and new metal tools swept aside stone tools in a hurry. Iron and steel have been used widely for about 3,000 years, but these days it appears that polymers and plastics are taking over. Nearly everything seems to be made from a material with a weird name like neoprene, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polyacrylonitrile, or polyvinyl butyral.
These materials are fine, and I’d guess that half the products we use today wouldn’t be possible or affordable without them. They have made a lot of progress over the last few decades, but then again so have metals. Machine tool manufacturers have developed new machine tools in the same time frame (plasma cutters, waterjets, and laser cutting machines); metallurgists have continued to develop new alloys (too many to count); and innovators and entrepreneurs have deployed the most important tool of all—imagination.
- Let’s start small. How would you like an aluminum wallet? Modern, durable, and apparently secure from RFID crooks. What’s an RFID crook? You’re probably familiar with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are handy for indentifying shipments of materials and whatnot. The tag is encoded with information that identifies the shipment’s contents. Waving an RFID scanner near the shipment excites the tag and causes it to emit a radio signal with the encoded information, which the scanner reads.In a dazzlingly silly move, some genius decided to make a crook’s job easy by embedding an RFID tag in a credit card. Now any thief with an RF scanner can pluck your personal information from your credit card, if you have the RFID type. Supposedly an aluminum wallet prevents this.
- How about transportation? Optibike uses 6061 aluminum for its electric bikes (made in the U.S., by the way). Daymak’s Shadow electric bike likewise has an aluminum frame, but this bike is really interesting in that it doesn’t appear to have an electric motor—it’s hidden. If you don’t want the electric option, you have quite a few other choices. One company worth a look at is Giant Bicycle Inc. It takes metallurgy seriously—rather than using off-the-shelf aluminum, it forges two proprietary aluminum alloys which it calls ALUXX® and ALUXX SL.
- Have you even broken your glasses frames? You need some made from a shape-memory alloy. When stressed, these alloys don’t break; they simply take on a new shape. Heating the metal to its transition temperature causes it to go back to its original shape. For glasses frames, the manufacturers keep the transition temperature below room temperature, so they return to the original shape without heating. Maybe automobile manufacturers should make panels, hoods, and bumpers out of memory metal too.
- Fabricator Don Begneaud has been known to hand out aluminum business cards. Clever! Maybe he should stash them in an aluminum wallet. His company also makes a line of products that reflect Louisiana culture, available under the FabriCajun™ name. Great stuff.
Seen more slick uses for metals? Let’s talk!