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Pacific Northwest National Laboratory had just completed a materials project with Boeing and had invested in resources, including a quarter-million dollar superplastic forming press. The press allowed the team to evaluate operating conditions and aluminum alloys for superplastic forming.

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Document Title: Superplastic Forming
Category: Materials Science
Media Type: Photos
Date of Image/Photo: 1995
Background: Sometimes solving the biggest challenges begins with understanding something very small – like the tiny grains that form a piece of metal. For a team of scientists who wanted to improve automotive fuel efficiency, understanding and controlling the size of the grains in aluminum allowed the design of an easy and inexpensive method for producing lightweight automotive parts, replacing heavier steel, leading to improved fuel efficiency. This method is known as superplastic forming or SPF; the process relies on a tailor-made metal that can stretch into a complex shape, such as a trunk lid. The process was not used for car components because of the expensive additives and complicated processes required to create the appropriate aluminum alloy. The problem is the grain size. You need small grains that stay small while you form the aluminum. Through careful research, the scientists determined an inexpensive way to keep the grains small, and the industrial partners took that knowledge and created a process that works on the large scale. Developed through a partnership among the Department of Energy, General Motors Corporation, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and others, SPF replaces heavy steel with lightweight aluminum, without sacrificing safety. In SPF, a metal alloy is heated and clamped against a hot die of the desired shape, such as a trunk lid or an inner support structure of a hood. When sheet metal softens, it stretches easily, like dough draping into a pie pan. Pressurized gas is used to stress the metal and make it stretch against the lubricated mold. “The breakthrough was discovering how grain size and composition in an aluminum alloy affect the superplastic metal forming process,” said Greg Exarhos, who coordinates PNNL’s material science program suite.
URL of this page: http://picturethis.pnl.gov/picturet.nsf/by+id/DRAE-8R5P6L

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