A team of materials scientists at the University of Minnesota have discovered a metal alloy that can rearrange its crystalline structure almost indefinitely without damage.
The substance, made of a mixture of zinc, gold and copper, is part of a family of metals known as martensites, which have the ability to remember their shape and return to it after being bent.
Almost all martensite metals are made of a mixture of nickel and titanium and have found applications in many fields including aerospace, energy generation and agriculture. However, over time they build up stresses inside which break them apart, so they must be replaced.
The newly-discovered alloy can change between states tens of thousands of times without appreciable internal damage, opening up a wide range of possibilities. "The real advance is to make the transformations reversible that could be applied in many situations," Richard James, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC.
"You could make devices that convert heat to electricity directly. They could use the waste heat from computers and cell phones to recharge the battery and make them more efficient."
The technology will now be applied to create a family of ceramic solids that can also shape-shift back and forth.