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Self-taught metallurgist creates lighter, stronger steel in a flash


June 10, 2011

The Flash Bainite steel heat-treatment process

The Flash Bainite steel heat-treatment process

Having been around for a few centuries, steel is what is known as a "mature technology" and the basic process of heat-treating has remained largely unchanged in the modern age. So when self-taught metallurgist Gary Cola approached engineers at Ohio State University claiming to have found a way to increase the strength of steel by seven percent, they were justifiably skeptical. However, after the engineers tested steel produced using the new method, Cole's claims were borne out and the engineers set about understanding what was happening.

Although the temperature and length of time for hardening steel will vary by industry, with some treatments taking days, most steels are heat-treated at around 900 °C (1,652 °F) for a few hours. Cola's process, which is run at his proprietary lab setup at SFP Works, LLC., in Detroit, involves steel sheets being carried by rollers through flames as hot as 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,012 °F), before they are deposited into a cooling liquid bath. Cola's entire process takes less than 10 seconds.

Cola said his steel, which he has trademarked as Flash Bainite, is seven percent stronger than martensitic advanced high-strength steel. Additionally, Cola claimed his steel could be thinned and lengthened 30 percent more than martensitic steels without losing its enhanced strength.

After testing a few samples and discovering that everything that Cola said was true, Ohio State University researchers set about revealing the physics behind Cola's process.

Brian Hanhold, who was an undergraduate student at the time, and Tapasvi Lolla, who subsequently earned his master's degree working out the answer, found that although Cola's process formed a martensite microstructure inside the steel, it also formed a bainite microstructure, scattered with carbon-rich carbide compounds.

In traditional, slow heat treatments, steel's initial microstructure always dissolves into a homogeneous phase called austenite at peak temperature, explains associate professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State and Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Integrative Materials Joining for Energy Applications, Suresh Babu.

"We think that, because this new process is so fast with rapid heating and cooling, the carbides don't get a chance to dissolve completely within austenite at high temperature, so they remain in the steel and make this unique microstructure containing bainite, martensite and carbides," Babu said.

Lolla says this unique microstructure boosts the metal's ductility, meaning it can crumple a lot more before breaking. This, coupled with the steel's ability to be thinned and lengthened without losing its strength, make it an ideal process for the automotive industry, say the researchers. Carmakers would be able to build frames that are up to 30 percent thinner and lighter without compromising safety, with the steel also acting as an impact-absorber. Alternatively, the steel could be used to reinforce an armored vehicle without weighing it down.

Cola also says his process is also environmentally friendly as it consumes less energy per kilogram of steel processed compared to traditional methods and uses water instead of oils or molten salt.

Babu, Lolla, Ohio State research scientist Boian Alexandrov, and Cola co-authored the paper detailing the process with Badri Narayanan, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering. The paper appears in the current issue of the journal Materials Science and Technology.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Is 7% a lot?

Denis Klanac

Most metallurgists would give their eye teeth to improve modern high strength steel by 1%, and this process improves ductility as well. So yes, that\'s a lot.

Facebook User


7% stronger AND 30% lighter. Also it is forged faster using less energy.

Spread these benefits worldwide in the many applications steel has in the modern world and yes, you can say that it is indeed a lot.

Jacob William

In this case, yes, 7% IS a lot. I\'m not certain of my figures, but a \'mature\' technology such as steel isn\'t likely to see more than a couple of percent (at the most) improvement per year - and that percentage will diminish/become less significant as time passes, because each advancement is little more than a variation on a theme, and there\'s only so far you can go along that path.

In theory, the old circus \'strong man\' might have been able to bend a bar of steel with very little difficulty, but may be hard-put to even start to bend a bar (of the same dimensions) of steel made this way.


Doesn\'t sound like it, until you look at the ratings of hardness and such. 7% of 328kpsi tensile strength makes it 350kpsi, which is pretty large


1 Person ~ Average Weight 81Kg @ 7% => 5.67 Kg .. not much. 1 M1 Abram Tank ~ Weight 60.4 (Long Tons) @ 7% => 4.228 Tons -> 4295.85 Kg .. Hell yes!!!

Avri S

If the reported kilowatt of energy per kilogram is less than other processes while getting 7% stronger steel, this would seem to be huge.



Stainless steel AISI 302 - Cold-rolled = 860 Titanium alloy (6% Al, 4% V) = 900 Spider silk (See note below) = 1,000

if we assume the amount they are referring to is 860. 860 * 1.07 = 920.20. Sronger than Titanium Alloy. with 30% less weight and less cost. So yes, 7% is a lot with this process. It will reduce car weight 30% for the same benefits we have today. Very big pluses.


Congratulations, Mr. Gary Cola, the results are amazing. Scientists need so much help from self taught who love what they do. This facilitates the \"eureka\" moment in their research. Remember the Pythagorean Theorem, in all its simplicity, was enunciated only by the aid of a farmer. Farnsworth drew up the TV signal method, by association to the process of plowing the land .

Facebook User

\"Carmakers would be able to build frames that are up to 30 percent thinner and lighter without compromising safety, with the steel also acting as an impact-absorber.\"

A better and less expensive impact absorber would be foam steel bumpers.

Adrian Akau

Hum. How does it respond to magnetic fields and moderate heat? The advantage of a homogeneous structure is that it\'s unlikely to do much reforming unless the crystal structure is broken, but a non-uniform structure might be inclined to weaken or em-brittle with time. Still, 7% is pretty good, and this opens the door to research into non-homogeneous microstructres that might make for stronger metals.

Charles Bosse

Very plausible idea, but a lot of hype about it. The 30% thinning relates to how much you can stretch the material, not to it strength / weight ratio. 7% stronger is good, but some steels are 100% stronger than 380 MPa. If you make a car 7% lighter, the customers will want 70 kg of extras on board! The real saving should be the cost and space required for the process. 1000 kWh per tonne of steel is VERY costly.

Jim Green

Another example of the value of the garage and small lab-based inventor. I only hope he and the university have applied for patents.


It\'s like Rearden Steel IRL


It just goes to show how irrelevant a college education is. You can teach yourself most anything you want.

I find it odd the article describes a flame of 1100 degrees, but the picture shows an induction unit? It has to be induction a flame no matter how hot won\'t work that fast.

Michael Mantion

A real live Hank Rearden!

Russ Lowry

This just demonstrates how dogma within any given discipline can impede progress. This gentleman had no book or professor to tell him that what he was trying to achieve was impossible; therefore, he had no idea he was achieving the impossible! Kudos to him, and any other passionate people out there; willing to go where we are institutionally told not to.



The process sounds similar to the article on blow molded metallic glass here in gizmag.

Gary Richardson

wow! amazing achievement Mr Cola


To put this development in perspective, typical steelmaking processes can result in a 5% variation in strength for the same steel just due to normal chemistry and process variations. To gain 7% strength increase requires only very small changes to the chemistry with no increase in the energy required, let alone 1000kW per tonne. Gary Cola has "invented" a nice bit of technology but this is done using established metallurgical principles to tweak existing products. His prime example is 4130 grade, which is an alloy steel, a very expensive material compared to typical sheet steels used in cars. Weight reductions of the order of 30% can be achieved using Advanced High Strength Steels that require no additional process energy. If you really want to know what's possible using commercial (i.e. high volume) processes, see worldautosteel.


Isn't this flash quenched (amorphous) steel? yes it has the properties claimed but the problem was to cool the metal quickly enough only very thin or powered forms would work. You couldn't make a solid 2" shaft from it.

Is this process different?

Tom Swift
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