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    Daniel Branagan

    When most people speak of advanced materials, they mean semiconductors or biopolymers. But Daniel Branagan means steel. The materials scientist is transforming metals industries with his new “superhard steel.” His novel process rapidly cools molten steel into a glasslike solid, then heats the solid to form a unique nano structure. The result is a coating that outperforms the hardest metal coatings, even tungsten carbide, at one-third the price. Superhard steel is cheap and easy enough to manufacture that applications could range from rock crushers to kitchen knives. More than 500 companies have expressed interest in using Branagan’s material to make tougher, lighter, longer-lasting products. Branagan may license the patent from the U.S. Department of Energy—which oversees his lab—to create a spinoff company. The Michigan native launched his career 12 years ago by developing tougher rare-earth magnets for computer hard drives. But while other metallurgists tout Branagan’s innovations as feats of nanoscale engineering, to this ranch owner outdoorsman they’re “just fancy steels.”