Beryllium, beryllium alloys, beryllium carbide, and carbon are the ingredients of a class of nanophase Be/Be2C/C composite materials that can be formulated and functionally graded to suit a variety of applications. In a typical case, such a composite consists of a first layer of either pure beryllium or a beryllium alloy, a second layer of B2C, and a third layer of nanophase sintered carbon derived from fullerenes and nanotubes. The three layers are interconnected through interpenetrating spongelike structures.

These Be/Be2C/C composite materials are similar to Co/WC/diamond functionally graded composite materials, except that (1) W and Co are replaced by Be and alloys thereof and (2) diamond is replaced by sintered carbon derived from fullerenes and nanotubes. (Optionally, one could form a Be/Be2C/diamond composite.) Because Be is lighter than W and Co, the present Be/Be2C/C composites weigh less than do the corresponding Co/WC/diamond composites. The nanophase carbon is almost as hard as diamond.

WC/Co is the toughest material. It is widely used for drilling, digging, and machining. However, the fact that W is a heavy element (that is, has high atomic mass and mass density) makes W unattractive for applications in which weight is a severe disadvantage. Be is the lightest tough element, but its toughness is less than that of WC/Co alloy. Be strengthened by nanophase carbon is much tougher than pure or alloy Be. The nanophase carbon has an unsurpassed strength-to-weight ratio.

The Be/Be2C/C composite materials are especially attractive for terrestrial and aerospace applications in which there are requirements for light weight along with the high strength and toughness of the denser Co/WC/diamond materials. These materials could be incorporated into diverse components, including cutting tools, bearings, rocket nozzles, and shields. Moreover, because Be and C are effective as neutron moderators, Be/Be2C/C composites could be attractive for some nuclear applications.

This work was done by Oleg A. Voronov and Gary S. Tompa of Diamond Materials Inc. for Johnson Space Center.