NASA has developed a new type of tire for future Mars rovers, made out of a “memory wire” called nitinol. These tires are carefully-designed to bend out of shape as they cross obstacles in the Martian terrain. What makes them so special is what comes next: the wire mesh can bend itself back into shape once the obstacle is gone.
The same metal has been successfully used in dentistry to a similar effect. This is possible because Nitinol has two unique properties that can be employed: superelasticity and thermal shape memory.
How Does Nitinol Work?
Nitinol is an alloy of nickel and titanium. Neither metal on its own can do the things listed above. However, when they are mixed together in the right ratio, the resulting metal has a very unique molecular structure that allows it to take on the characteristic superelasticity or thermal shape memory.
Superelasticity | This is a property that essentially means you can bend something dramatically, only to have it spring right back into shape as soon as the pressure is released. You may have seen highly flexible glasses frames that claim to be unbreakable—that is an excellent example of superelasticity.
Thermal Shape Memory | Nitinol’s molecular structure is highly affected by temperature. When the metal has been deformed, we can expose it to a certain predetermined temperature. That temperature will make the molecules in the metal rearrange back to their default structure.
It may seem like magic to watch a wadded up piece of wire uncoil itself as it warms up, but this is just the science of nitinol.
Nitinol’s Many Uses
As we mentioned above, this fantastic metal is being used in tires for space rovers. It has also been used in the robotics industry for several decades. Over the years, nitinol production has become easier and more widespread, allowing us to expand its uses into many other fields.
Medical professions benefit from nitinol heart stents, bone staples, catheter tubes, and even some needles. All of this is made possible because of nitinol’s unique ability to keep its shape under pressure.
Nitinol in Dentistry
Dentistry has not been left behind! Just as in other medical fields, some of our dental tools can employ nitinol to great effect. Even more than that, something we are excited about is the ability to make wire-and-bracket braces out of nitinol.
If the braces wire is made of nitinol, accidents and injuries that can damage braces are far easier to repair. Due to thermal shape memory, any wire that becomes bent can be snapped back into its correct shape simply by warming it up.
The Dental Technology of the Future
Braces are only the beginning! We’re excited to see what happens in the future, as nitinol becomes more and more common in the dental industry.