Science: Restless Metal

Lithium, lightest and most active of metals, has been put to work. Its new job: snatching oxygen from the atmosphere in furnaces for toughening steel gun parts, aircraft propeller blades, tiny altimeter gears and other tools of war.

Heat treating (controlled heating and cooling) is a necessary step in steel working to soften or harden the metal. Ordinarily, steel oxidizes rapidly at furnace temperatures (around 1,600° F.), forming a scaly surface. This must be cleaned off mechanically or chemically, thus altering delicate dimensions. But with a lithium atmosphere in the furnace, steel parts come out bright, all ready for assembly.

A soft, whitish...

Want the full story?

Subscribe Now


Get TIME the way you want it

  • One Week Digital Pass — $4.99
  • Monthly Pay-As-You-Go DIGITAL ACCESS$2.99
  • One Year ALL ACCESSJust $30!   Best Deal!
    Print Magazine + Digital Edition + Subscriber-only Content on

Learn more about the benefits of being a TIME subscriber

If you are already a subscriber sign up — registration is free!