Making the foam is cheap and easy. The researchers pour molten alloy into a porous piece of sodium aluminate salt. After the alloy cools, the researchers dissolve the salt using acid, leaving behind a spongelike structure of the alloy. “The foam is a quite promising preparation route–significantly more efficient compared to the growth of single crystals,” says Sebastian Fahler, who studies shape-memory alloys at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research, in Dresden, Germany. But the shape change will have to be much higher than 0.12 percent to have practical applications, he says.
Dunand and his colleagues have a plan for increasing the foam’s shape change. Just like a sponge, the foam has struts connected at nodes, he explains. Each strut right now contains multiple tiny crystals. These crystals are still canceling out each other’s motion to some extent, which is why the overall change in the foam is only 0.12 percent.
To get a larger shape change, Dunand says, the trick will be to make each strut behave like a single crystal, so that the foam on the whole will be more like a single crystal. That means the researchers would have to make individual crystals span each of the struts in the foam.
The material will still face competition. Nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, which are suitable for use inside the body and are driven by temperature, are already employed to make stents.
For micropositioning applications, says O’Handley, the material will have to compete with piezoelectric materials such as quartz and lead titanate, which deform in response to electric current. But because the process to make the foam is easy and cheap, he says that it brings nickel-manganese-gallium closer to being cost competitive with piezoelectric materials.