The metal is typically soft and easily scratched
Lead performs under pressure.
Under normal conditions, the metal is relatively
soft, easily scratched with a fingernail. But when compressed under extreme pressures,
lead becomes hard and strong — even stronger than steel, scientists report
November 11 in Physical Review Letters.
To study how lead’s strength changed
under pressure, researchers rapidly compressed a lead sample by blasting it
with lasers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory in California. The pressure within the sample reached about 400
gigapascals — similar to the pressures found within Earth’s core.
The strength of a material characterizes
its response to stress — a force applied over a given area. The more stress that
a substance can endure before it deforms, the stronger it is. Physicist Andrew
Krygier of Lawrence Livermore and colleagues observed how ripples in the lead grew
and deformed under the high-pressure conditions. The growth was relatively
slow, indicating that the metal was 250 times as strong as lead under normal
conditions and about 10 times as strong as high-strength steel.
When materials are compressed, their
properties can change dramatically. For example, hydrogen, normally a gas, can turn into a metal (SN: 8/10/16). Understanding
how substances change in response to pressure might be important for improving designs
of protective gear such as bulletproof vests (SN: 6/20/19).
Calculations suggest that the pressure
alters lead’s crystal structure, causing a rearrangement of its lattice of
atoms. That structural change results in a stronger metal, the researchers