Unlocking the Potential of Metal Foams: Types, Production, and Applications

Unlocking the Potential of Metal Foams: Types, Production, and Applications

January 10, 2023 0 By Techinstro

Metal foams are an innovative and versatile material with many uses and potential applications with lightweight, impact, and fire-resistant and offer superior sound and thermal insulation. They also have a low coefficient of thermal expansion and high energy absorption capacity. They are composed of highly porous metal with a cellular structure and are produced by various techniques, such as powder metallurgy, infiltration, and gas foaming. The type of metal foam can vary from aluminum to titanium, and the properties are determined by the type of metal and manufacturing method used. They are widely used in automotive, aerospace, and defense industries, energy storage, heat exchange, and biomedical applications. They are a fascinating and rapidly evolving material with the potential to revolutionize many industries and create new opportunities.

Types of Metal Foams

There are two main types of metal foams: open-cell and closed-cell. Open-cell foams have a lower density than closed-cell foams as they contain pores and, therefore, less metal. Different methods produce both types of metal foam, and each can produce either type. Open-cell metal foams are composed of small cells that are interconnected. They contain some pores and can be porous or non-porous. Open-cell metal foams are highly porous and can be used as heat exchangers, filters, and vibration-damping materials. Their lower density makes them lightweight and used in various applications such as aircraft components, thermal and sound insulation, energy storage, and biomedical devices. Closed-cell metal foams have larger pores that are not interconnected. They contain a significant amount of metal, have high mechanical strength and stiffness, and are used as structural materials. Closed-cell metal foams are used in similar applications as open-cell metal foams but with added strength and stiffness.

Production of Metal Foams

Three main methods for producing metal foams are powder metallurgy, infiltration, and gas foaming. These techniques are used to produce both open-cell and closed-cell metal foams. These powders are prepared by either an atomization technique or a sintering process. Powdered metals are used to create open-cell. In the atomization method, the powdered metal impacts a molten metal stream against a rotating drum. In the sintering method, metal powders are made by heating and pressing a mixture of metal powders. The metal powders are then consolidated into a green state by applying heat and pressure. The green metal is then formed into the desired shape, and afterward, it is sintered at a high temperature to produce the open-cell metal foam. Solid metal pieces are used to create closed-cell metal foams. A metal ingot is prepared by melting and casting the metal and then infiltrating it with a gas such as carbon dioxide, ethylene, or sulfur hexafluoride. The metal ingot is kept at a constant temperature and pressure, and the infiltrating gas reacts with the surface of the ingot and then diffuses inward to dissolve the metal. The gas-filled ingot is then solidified by quenching the ingot in water, and the metal forms the closed-cell metal foam.

Properties of Metal Foams

The properties of metal foams depend on the type of metal and the manufacturing method used. Its density varies from 1.25 to 2.0 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3). Open-cell metal foams have a lower density than closed-cell metal foams as they contain cells with tiny pores. Open-cell metal foams are lighter than closed-cell ones but have lower strength and stiffness. Open-cell metal foams have a higher thermal conductivity than closed-cell metal foams. The thermal conductivity of the foams is calculated by measuring the heat transfer in a sample of metal foam at different temperatures. Open-cell metal foams can be used as thermal insulators as they have a low thermal conductivity, and closed-cell metal foams can be used as thermal conductors as they have a high thermal conductivity. Closed-cell metal foams are fire retardant and can withstand temperatures up to 800°C.

Uses of Metal Foams in Automotive, Aerospace, and Defense Industries

Carbon dioxide-based metal foams are primarily used in the automotive and aerospace industries. They are lightweight, impact, and fire-resistant and have excellent sound and thermal insulation. Carbon dioxide-based foams are used as thermal barriers, soundproofing, and vibration-damping materials and can also be used to store energy and for structural reinforcement. Ethylene-based metal foams are used for thermal insulation and can be applied in the engine, exhaust system, and fuel tank of vehicles. Sulfur hexafluoride-based metal foams are used in aerospace applications and are lightweight, and have excellent thermal insulation properties.

Uses of Metal Foams in Energy Storage, Heat Exchange, and Biomedical Applications

Metal foams are used for energy storage, heat exchange, and biomedical applications. Carbon dioxide-based metal foams are used as an electrode in batteries and capacitors and can be used for storing energy. Ethylene-based metal foams are used as thermal insulators in heat exchangers and refrigeration equipment. Sulfur hexafluoride-based metal foams are used in refrigerators and cryogenic equipment.

Advantages of Metal Foams

Lightweight – Metal foams are lightweight and have low densities, making them an excellent option for thermal insulation. They are also very easy to machine.
High energy absorption capacity: The large pores allow the material to deform, absorb energy, and then return to its original shape.
Low coefficient of thermal expansion: The thermal expansion is lower than that of many other materials, meaning that they can withstand changes in temperature without breaking.
A vast range of applications: They can be used in different applications and industries.

Challenges of Metal Foam Production

There are a few challenges associated with the production of metal foams. The main challenge is that the manufacturing process is energy intensive as high temperatures and pressures are needed to form the material. The foams also require exotic metals, such as tantalum and niobium, which are rare and expensive. The properties are also temperature and pressure-dependent. The temperature and pressure at which it is manufactured determine the final properties of the material. Hence, controlling and monitoring the temperatures and pressures during the production process is essential. Additionally, they are surface-area-to-volume materials, which means they have a large surface area compared to their volume. Therefore, they are very reactive, and their properties are liable to environmental factors such as humidity and oxygen.

Future of Metal Foam Research And Development

The development of 3D printing techniques may revolutionize metal foam production. This method was first proposed in 2001 by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. They created a printer to print porous foam using a molten metal source and a pressure-fed inkjet. This method incorporates all the properties, including their large pores and lightweight structure, and allows for the production of customized foams with specific properties. This technology is in its early stages, and its feasibility for industrial production is still under research. Nevertheless, it promises to be a breakthrough in the development of metal foam technology and can introduce its use in entirely new industries.

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