This Fabrication Technique Uses Individual Electrons to Make Metal Velcro

Using a low-power electron laser, researchers use a weird effect of physics to make dozens of tiny hooks quickly. Or, clearly witchcraft.
May 15, 2016, 5:00pm

If you've ever wondered if particle accelerators have a purpose outside pure research, the Surfi-Sculpt should answer that question. As you can see in this video, it purports to use individual electron bombardment to sculpt tiny hooks out of a piece of metal. The end result is a series of grips that allow the metal to adhere more easily to other materials.

In other words, it creates a metal velcro.

Thankfully, the process isn't too much of an industrial secret. In fact, it can partly be traced back to a 2012 paper published in Physics Procedia. Vapor pressures from the collision between metal and an electron laser beam force the metal to melt into this shape, creating a sort of hook.

But the process is a little more complicated than simply firing an electron laser beam (a narrow stream of electrons, rather than photons) at a pipe to see what happens. The researchers had to experiment with power variations, discovering that at higher power levels, the effect quickly became unstable. "At high powers, low speeds and smaller focal distances, overheating occurs and the quasi steady-state temperature field is no longer achieved," the authors, coming from the University of Cambridge and manufacturer TWI, said.

The key seemed to be a low-power stream to form the hooks while allowing them to cool quickly in place. The effect was barely seen at all between these extremes, and low power was less affected by speed differences. The "keyhole" caused by a narrow beam (think keyhole in the sense of minimally invasive surgeries) is, in effect, the most important part. "It appears that the production mechanism is 'keyhole dominated' and is caused by the direct impact of the vapour jet on the melt," they wrote.

Image: TWI Inc. and University of Cambridge.

Once they nailed down a fabrication process, the researchers were able to automate the process. Because time isn't a factor as much as power, they can also create the rapid process seen in the video.

The end result of all this research is the Surfi-Sculpt material. TWI has since been able to demonstrate the technique on a wider array of metals like stainless steel. (The original experiments used titanium.) Not only that, but they've been able to demonstrate it on non-conductive objects, so the process isn't limited to metals.

It creates a material that provides a way to adhere unlike products like a plastic and a metal together in such a way as to create a relatively strong bond. It can also be used to create small aerodynamic effects and to create effective filters. It does it all while looking like pure, unadulterated witchcraft, which is the mark of truly great lasers-doing-cool-shit science.