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...

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