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Virginia Tech researchers forging ahead to solve 300-year-old mystery

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BLACKSBURG, VA -

Researchers at Virginia Tech are trying solve a centuries old mystery that could hold the key to creating new wave of stronger, lighter, more energy efficient metals.

As far back as the Crusades, soldiers in the Middle East had swords that were very strong, very sharp, yet lightweight made from a metal called Damascus steel.  The last known maker of Damascus steel died 300 years ago, but never passed on its secret.  To this day no one has been able to replicate it.

Dr. Barry Goodell, a Professor of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech hopes he and his student researchers can iron out the mystery.

"It's a mystery and it's always interesting to try to solve a mystery," said Goodell.

He's studied Damascus steel for the last five years -- even getting the opportunity to examine a Damascus steel sword at the Smithsonian Institute recently.  In that time, he's made findings that he believes are critical to this research.  Swords made from Damascus steel have special molecules called carbon nanotubes, which appear to give the steel its strength and flexibility.

"So we're trying to understand why would carbon nanotubes be formed in steel during an era where no one even knew what a carbon nanotube was," said Goodell.

That's a question student researchers Veronica Kimmerly and Beck Giesy will spend the rest of the summer trying to answer.

"We're still sort of a the beginning of this," said Kimmerly.

Using Goodell's research and their own, they've learned that wood fiber contains carbon nanotubes -- and when you heat steel, it can absorb molecules from other materials being heated with it.  That's why they're studying the effects of heating two pieces of steel with wood fiber in between them.

"What we're hoping to do by incorporating [the wood fiber] into other materials is to lend those materials, those properties," said Giesy.  "So it makes stronger, more flexible steel."

They say they've had some success getting the steel to absorb material from the wood fiber, but not to the degree they want.

"It's a lot of trial and error," said Kimmerly.  "And it's hard to put on a time on it."

"We could make a breakthrough tomorrow," said Giesy.  "But we might not."

Goodell says if they're successful, the modern day applications of their research would be widespread.

"We could make reactors that run at three times the temperature they currently do," said Goodell.  "So what does that do for us?  That makes a reactor that produces energy much more efficiently.  Lightweight vehicles -- we could make metals in cars that are much thinner yet stronger."

Goodell says the steel could also be used to produce stronger turbines and more durable car parts, among other things.

Both he and the students remain hopeful they'll make a breakthrough and finally solve this 300-year-old puzzle.

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