Shape memory alloys (SMAs), sometimes known as “smart metals,” provide a lightweight, solid-state alternative to conventional actuators and switches, such as hydraulic, pneumatic, or motor-based systems. To function properly, SMAs must be “trained” to return to a previous form when heated, and innovators at NASA’s Glenn Research Center have developed a remarkable new method of completing this training at a fraction of the time and cost of conventional training techniques. Glenn’s technique uses mechanical cycling, rather than more complicated and time-consuming thermal cycling, to train SMAs before implementation. In addition, this new approach to training allows SMAs to be applied to complex geometric components, so that they may be used in a broader number of applications.

A stent made using SMA is placed inside a narrow blood vessel to improve blood flow during an angioplasty procedure.

Glenn researchers have optimized how SMAs are trained by reconceptualizing the entire stabilization process. Prior techniques stabilize SMAs during thermal cycling under conditions of fixed stress (known as the isobaric response). However, Glenn’s innovators used mechanical cycling under conditions of fixed temperature (the isothermal response) to achieve stabilization rapidly and efficiently.

This novel method uses the isobaric response to establish the stabilization point under conditions identical to those that will be used during service. Once the stabilization point is known, a set of isothermal mechanical cycling experiments is then performed using different levels of applied stress. Each of these mechanical cycling experiments is left to run until the strain response has stabilized. When the stress levels required to achieve stabilization under isothermal conditions are known, they can be used to train the material in a fraction of the time that would be required to train the material using only thermal cycling. As the strain state has been achieved isothermally, the material can be switched back under isobaric conditions, and will remain stabilized during service. In short, Glenn’s method of training can be completed in a matter of minutes rather than in days or even weeks, so SMAs become much more practical to use in a wide range of applications.

Potential applications include aerospace, aviation, automotive (actuators, engine mounts and suspension, car frames), medical (e.g., stents/angioplasty, bone repair clamps, robotics actuators and micromanipulators that simulate human movement), and household appliances (fasteners, seals, connectors, and clamps).

NASA is actively seeking licensees to commercialize this technology. Please contact the Technology Transfer Office at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to initiate licensing discussions. Follow this link for more information: .

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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