Boundaries of a New Science

"Engineers no longer need to be limited by materials that exist," says Olson, "but can start designing materials they would like to have." SRG exemplifies an evolving discipline Olson calls engineering science, because it brings together --in a total systems approach to design --the opposed philosophies of science and engineering. "Science seeks to distil simple laws from the complexity of nature, and engineering combines those simple laws to create new complexity."

The prototype bearing steel for the space shuttle proved the feasibility of SRG's approach, and industry has become more interested as their work moves closer to other applications. "Probably the most exciting area right now," says Olson, "is gear steels. It looks like we may be able to cut the weight of gears in half." For Michael and Mario Andretti and the Newman-Haas Indy 500 racing team they drive for, this is nothing to sneeze at. Olson began working with Newman-Haas in 1990.

Helicopters and airplanes also require high-strength structures. Navy fighter planes landing on a carrier flight deck stall and essentially drop onto the deck from about 18 feet high, placing a tremendous load on the landing gear and arrestor hook, both prime applications for ultrahigh-strength steel. These planes are about 30% steel by weight --a lot of steel, says Olson, and nothing else will do.

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