Overview

Please use the jump links below to read our Nitinol facts.

Machining

Nitinol is a very abrasive material to machine due to its tough titanium oxide surface. Milling, turning, grinding are possible with excellent results but expect a lot of tool wear. Carbide tooling is highly recommended. During centerless grinding ensure adequate cooling lubricant is present. Nitinol can be EDM, water jet cut, and laser machined with excellent results.

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Cold work vs. Shape set anneal

Nitinol in the cold work condition (as drawn or as rolled) is material that has not been subject to a final heat treatment (shape set anneal). Nitinol wire and tube typically will have 30-40% cold work reduction during the last drawing steps. In sheet and strip products that value is usually closer to 20% reduction. The amount of cold work a material had prior to its shape set anneal dictates the ultimate strength of the material. Once the Nitinol material has been shape set annealed it will exhibit the superelastic and shape memory properties.  Generally the shape set anneal is a straightening process performed under controlled time, temperature, and pressure conditions. This process defines the final mechanical properties of the material until it is subject to further processing. Varying the parameters of the shape set anneal will effect these properties. This annealing process is continuous for wire and strip straightened on spools; or in discrete lengths for tubes and sheet and bar stock material. NDC produces wire, strip, sheet, and bar stock in both the cold work (as drawn) and shape set annealed (straight) condition. NDC’s tubes are in the shape set annealed condition

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Shape setting / aging

Shape setting refers to the process used to form Nitinol. Whether the Nitinol is superelastic or shape memory, in the cold work or straightened condition, it is often necessary to form the material into a new “memory” shape. This is done by firmly constraining the material into its new shape in a fixture or on a mandrel and then performing a heat treatment. The heating method can be an air or vacuum furnace, salt bath, sand bath, heated die, or other heating method. The temperature should be in the range of 500-550C with higher temperatures resulting in lower tensile strengths. Cooling should be rapid to avoid aging effects, a water quench is recommended. The heat treatment time should be such that the material reaches the desired temperature throughout its cross-section. This depends on the mass of the fixture and material, and the heating method. Times may be less than a minute for heating small parts in a salt bath or heated die. Times may be much longer (10-20 minutes) for heating massive fixtures in a furnace with an air or argon atmosphere. In these cases a thermocouple in contact with the material or fixture is recommended.  In all cases, experimentation for the proper time and temperature will be required to determine the combination that gives the desired results. Aging can be done to raise the Af temperature of superelastic Nitinol components. Aging is done by heat treating to about 475C for extended periods. Aging and shape setting can be done simultaneously by firmly constraining the material to its new shape in a fixture and heating to around 475C for up to an hour. Longer times result in higher Af’s. Aging can also be done on material that was previously shape set. As with shape setting, aging times must be determined experimentally, because they depend on the processing history of the material, the heating method, and temperature. It is advisable to perform a water quench after aging to sharply define the heating time.

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Surface finishes

Nitinol can have different surface finishes as a raw material and as a finished component. This choice of surface will depend on performance and cosmetic requirements for the particular application, as surface roughness, fatigue, corrosion, and other properties can vary depending on the surface condition of the material.

Oxide surface – Current Nitinol producers make Nitinol with an oxide surface that varies in color from light amber to blue to a black color. This surface denotes material that was annealed in a controlled environment. Oxide surfaces are typically very smooth and may be more lubricious than other surface finishes.

Mechanically polished surface – Nitinol wire and strip is abrasively polished to a shiny, bright surface prior to straightening.  This surface looks very similar to stainless steel and is very popular for its cosmetic appeal.  Nitinol wire and tubes are also centerless ground to a bright surface.

Chemically etched wire – Nitinol wire that is run through an acid bath (pickled) prior to straightening.  Discrete components can also be etched after shape setting in a bath.  Etched surfaces are typically rougher than oxide surfaces and lend themselves to improved coating adhesion. An etched surface has a very thin oxide layer and studies have shown better corrosion performance than the oxide or polished bright surfaces.

Sandblasted surface -  Nitinol wire that is passed through a sand blasting apparatus prior to straightening. This surface has a slightly rougher texture and can aid polymer adhesion.


Electro-polished surface – Nitinol components such as stents and filters that are to be implanted are usually electro-polished as a final process step. This process creates an exceptionally smooth, uniform oxide layer that improves biocompatibility and reduces corrosion.  

Coatings – Nitnol can be coated with polymers such as polyurethane and Teflon. Polyurethane extruded over Nitinol is common for cell phone antennas. Teflon extrusion and spray coating of Nitinol is becoming more common today.  The high cure temperatures of PTFE materials (>300C) can effect the superelastic properties of the Nitinol, so special care is required.

Platings – Nitinol has been successfully plated with various metals (gold, silver, nickel, copper) for various commercial applications. Plated Nitinol eyeglass frames are very popular today.  Care must be taken to eliminate the potential for introducing excess hydrogen on the surface that could lead to embrittlement.  Plating adhesion on high strain medical components is a critical performance issue that must be resolved.

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Joining to Nitinol

Soldering – Nitinol’s tough oxide layer does not promote good solder wetting.  An aggressive flux (Indium Corp. #2 flux) is required to remove the oxide, then a standard Sn-Ag solder can be used to attain good results.

Welding - Welding Nitinol to itself is usually very effective if the weld is protected by an  inert atmosphere and the heat effected zone is minimized.  Laser, TIG, and resistance welding are all processes that have been successful.  Nitinol welded to dissimilar metals, such as stainless steel, does not give acceptable results since the outcome is a brittle intermetallic interface which cannot be stress relieved.

Other techniques – Nitinol can be bonded to other materials using medical grade epoxies and adhesives.  Mechanical techniques such as crimping and swaging are possible. Another mechnical technique is to use Nitinol’s shape memory or superelastic properties to join materials.  A Nitinol tube connector can be expanded either mechanically or by cooling it to martensite than deforming it, inserted over another element, than allowing the connector to return to austenite and clamp down on the element.

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Transition Temperature Hysteresis

Hysteresis is the temperature difference between a material’s phase transformation upon heating or cooling.  This spread is typically around 20-30C for Nitinol superelastic alloys used in medical applications. Various heat treatments can shift the hysteresis higher, lower, or widen it.  A typical Nitinol hysteresis curve is shown below.

Transition Temperature Hysteresis

Af: temperature where material has finished transforming to austenite upon heating. As: temperature where material starts to transform to austenite upon heating. Ms: temperature where material starts to transform to martensite upon cooling. Mf: temperature where material has finished transforming to martensite upon cooling. Austenite: Nitinol’s stronger, higher temperature phase. Crystalline structure is simple cubic. Superelastic behavior is in the phase (over a 50-60C temperature spread). Martensite: Nitinol’s weaker, lower temperature phase. Crystalline structure is twinned. Material easily deformed in this phase. Once deformed in martensite it will remain deformed until heated to austenite where it will return to its pre-deformed shape, i.e. “shape memory” effect.

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Measuring Transformation Temperatures

DSC.  Differential Scanning Calorimeter measures the phase transformation temperatures in Nitinol by detecting the changes in heat flow in the material.  DSC results are used to quantify the base alloy transformation properties.


Active Af Measurement.   It is important to understand the phase transformation temperatures for the component in its application.  Measurement techniques such as Bend – Free Recovery (BFR) or Tube Crush are similar in their approach.  A sample of the finished component (wire, tube, stent, etc.) is cooled below Mf, deformed a defined strain amount, and then heated up until it returns to it’s original shape. As the material warms a LVDT records the change in strain with temperature and a plot is created.

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Biocompatibility and Corrosion Resistance

The unique combination of shape memory and superelasticity properties, coupled with its biocompatibility response has made Nitinol an excellent material for medical and dental applications. Products such as orthodontic arch wire, filters, stents, and bone anchors are all prime Nitinol applications. Data from in vivo and in vitro laboratory tests support the excellent biocompatibility and corrosion properties of this material. This performance is attributed to Nitinol’s passive titanium oxide layer, which protects the base material from corrosion and nickel release. In fact, many researchers report that Nitinol is more corrosion resistant than stainless steel. Surface preparation is critical to good biocompatibility and corrosion performance and the finished device maker must ensure that his device meets the required standards.

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Shelf Life

Nitinol is stable against permanent temperature-induced metallurgical changes as long as the exposure temperature is less than the annealing or ageing temperatures. For the SE508 alloy, the ageing temperature range is 200C to 500C. Nitinol products have infinite shelf life under normal conditions. There are no indications that Nitinol is affected by humidity changes. In general, metallic materials are not humidity sensitive.

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How to Specify Nitinol

A good place to start when developing material specifications is the alloy data sheets. Keep in mind that these values are typical properties taken from tensile tests at room temperature. Nitinol’s properties can vary with composition, thermo-mechanical processing, and finished component processing. Commonly specified material properties for superelastic applications are: UTS, upper plateau stress, permanent set, elongation, and Af temperature. For shape memory alloy applications specified values are typically UTS, upper plateau stress and Af.

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