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Scientists Looking for Super Steel Cross Swords With the Past

June 24, 1992 GMT

LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) _ Scientists looking for a better metal believe they have may have unsheathed something much more romantic: Damascus steel, the stuff of which the Saracens’ long, curved blades of death were made.

″How lucky can you be?″ inventor Oleg Sherby said of the double-edged discovery.

The steel formulated by Sherby and colleague Jeffrey Wadsworth can be stretched 11 times its length. Regular steel stretches only about twice its length without breaking, Sherby said.

The industrial applications of Sherby’s steel are being researched at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by a consortium that includes North Star Steel Co., Caterpillar Inc. and the U.S. Energy Department.

But the possible link to the blades that once flashed beneath the Syrian sun during the Crusades is being debated in entirely different circles - the small community of Damascus steel enthusiasts.

Sherby and Wadsworth, material-science engineers at Stanford University, believe they have discovered the legendary metal said to be sharp enough to slice a feather in midair.

But another team, Florida blacksmith Al Pendray and Iowa State University metallurgist John Verhoeven, believe they have the true secret. They have worked for several years on their formula, favoring more traditional smithy methods.

″We’ve got a little bit of a disagreement,″ Pendray said.

The lure of Damascus steel is the challenge of trying to unravel the myth and mystery that have baffled metallurgists for centuries.

″We see a lot of examples of the beautiful sword blades in the museums, but nobody’s ever been able to understand it,″ Pendray said. ″It’s been quite a quest.″

According to legend, Damascus steel was made of ″wootz,″ a mixture of iron and possibly milkweed that was hammered into blades.

Some of the more exotic formulas that have descended into legend include dousing the blade in the urine of a goat or a redheaded boy or plunging it into the body of a muscular slave.

Flexibility makes Shelby’s superplastic steel easier to mold, eliminating expensive machining and welding steps and possibly cutting costs by as much as 30 percent.

Not surprisingly, it is the practical properties of the new steel that most interest the consortium.

Richard Landingham, a section leader at Livermore’s materials science department, said the team members were recently asked by the consortium to scale their experiments up to a full-production casting operation.

Sherby, too, is keenly interested in the industrial possibilities, such as building automobiles from his steel.

For Sherby, the story began in 1974, when he talked over the idea with Wadsworth and another colleague, Conrad Young. They experimented with doubling the amount of carbon in their steel, from about 1 percent to as much as 2 percent, and tried different combinations of heating, cooling and forming.

By 1976, Sherby had patents on the superplastic steel and was promoting it himself, speaking to different groups. It was at one of those talks that ″a guy in the audience stood up and said, ’Hey, Sherby, you know what? All I think you’ve done is rediscover Damascus steel,‴ the professor recalled.

Sherby took a crash course in Damascus steel history and determined he probably had stumbled onto the real thing.

He and Wadsworth have since experimented at duplicating on their steel the delicate grooves that distinguish Damascus swords.