Liquidmetal alloys elements that don't normally fit, like titanium, copper, nickel, zirconium and beryllium. Because these atoms don't bond well, they create an "amorphous" atomic structure without the stratified crystallization found in modern steel. Without this structure, it becomes difficult to create stress fractures and weak points in the metal. The result is essentially metal that mimics the properties of glass, and can be cast or shaped like plastic.
According to CNN, most of the more intriguing possibilities of this new alloy aren't being exploited yet in part because they're not entirely sure of its potential, and in part because they're testing it in markets where failure won't result in massive economic losses or risk to human life.
John Perepezko, professor of materials science at the University of Wisconsin, says making sports equipment is a safer place to start, than, for instance, the aircraft industry. "Nobody is going to fall out of the sky, no ship is going to sink if you make a mistake," he says. "If you break a golf club, you usually brag about being too strong, rather than blame it on a weak club."
However, Liquidmetal's website lists some other commercial and research areas where the new alloy is being tested, notably in medical, industrial and aerospace industries. For example, surgical knives made this way are said to be "sharper than steel," keep quality edges longer and last longer in general. Industrial coatings are claimed to have the "lowest coefficient of friction of any metallic coating" (meaning it requires less lubrication to guard against friction breakdown), "superior bond strengths without the use of bond coat" (stronger material without the need for additional reinforcement) and "withstand repeated thermal cycling" (can be heated and cooled repeatedly without compromising structural integrity). They further claim that NASA's Genesis spacecraft is using Liquidmetal tiles to collect isotopes in solar wind for analysis.
Liquidmetal has an inherent weakness in its melting point. The metal gets soft when heated as low as 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 Celcius), as opposed to the 2100 degrees (1150 Celcius) common steel can withstand. The company is reportedly working on different mixes of alloys to overcome the heat problem. Another issue is its price: CNN listed raw alloy at $10-$15 a pound, compared to $.50 a pound for aluminum. However, the alloy process is still in its infancy and can be expected to come down in cost as production methods (and possibly materials) improve.
What excites me most about this new technology is not the ideas already thrown out by CNN and the Liquidmetal company. I'm most intrigued by the possibilities already inherent in its properties and structure. Anyone who works with metal will tell you that the weakest point of any object is in the seams, places where two separate pieces are joined together by heat. The problem is that those pieces already have set crystallized structures, and while they have considerable strength in themselves will not join up to strengthen each other. Liquidmetal has no such crystalline structure, and will theoretically accept joining with as much strength as if the separate pieces had been cast together. Imagine an airtight capsule where a door can be opened anywhere, then closed again without compromising any safety. Imagine a wall with a door that opens and closes without a trace.
The true potential of this alloy requires a lot of research and imagination, and also depends on the technological hurdles we'll have to overcome (like heating a specific area to create an opening without warping the overall shape of the object). In the end, I'm excited by the possibilities and curious to see what applications everybody else can think of.